Hi-tech technique reveals hidden ‘graffiti’ on walls of Angkor Wat

Hi-tech technique reveals hidden ‘graffiti’ on walls of Angkor Wat

Hi-tech photographic technique brings previously unnoticed paintings on walls of 900-year-old temple back to life ‘like waving a magic wand’

Sarah Lazarus

Previously unnoticed by tourists and archaeologists, centuries-old images have been discovered on walls at Angkor Wat. Photo: Keith Mundy

Every year millions of tourists flock to Angkor, the magnificent temple complex which forms the spiritual heart of Cambodia.

Visitors marvel at the dizzying scale of the ruins and admire the intricately carved bas-relief friezes that adorn the walls – but there are numerous artistic creations that they fail to see.

Cutting-edge digital photographic techniques have recently revealed masses of paintings on the walls of the 900-year-old temple that are invisible to the naked eye. Despite extensive study by archaeologists over the years, many of them have never been noticed before.

Four years ago Noel Hidalgo Tan, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and specialist in the rock art of Southeast Asia, made the startling discovery.

“In 2010 I’d just finished my master’s degree and was spending three weeks working as a volunteer on excavations at Angkor Wat,” Tan told the South China Morning Post.

“One day I was wandering around the temple during my lunch break when I noticed some smudges on a rock. I took photos of them because I thought there might be something there. When I looked at the images on my computer later, I was surprised to see some really quite elaborate paintings.”

In 2012 Tan returned to Angkor Wat to conduct research for his doctorate. “I asked my Cambodian colleagues if they were aware of the paintings and they weren’t. In some cases all you can see is a very faint trace of red colour, so it wasn’t surprising.

“We surveyed all the walls, taking photos wherever there was a hint of pigment, and catalogued everything we found.”

The results were published last month in a paper in the journal Antiquity.

Tan used a digital enhancement process called decorrelation stretch to examine the photographs. Originally developed for aerial and satellite mapping, the technique highlights differences in an image too subtle for the human eye to detect.

“It’s like waving a magic wand” says Tan.

“The computer changes the colours on a pixel-by-pixel basis, so they move as far apart on the spectrum as possible. So if you had a light red and a dark red, it might turn one purple and one green. It allows us to view faint images with incredible clarity.”

The team identified over 200 paintings dotted around the walls of the temple enclosures and were amazed at the variety and wealth of detail they found.

Painting of elephants are among the newly-found images.

Boats are a common theme, with vessels ranging from small canoes to large flat-bottomed barges. Animals are also a popular subject, particularly elephants and horses, and there is one big cat, which might be a lion, and a curious reptilian beast with overlapping scales and multiple legs.

Other images portray deities and mythological figures, including apsaras – female spirits – and a simple line drawing of Hanuman the money god.

Illustrations of buildings include exterior views of Angkor Wat, and some pyramid-shaped structures which may represent Buddhist stupas.

Religious devotees have made pilgrimages to Angkor Wat throughout the ages and Tan believes some of these visitors felt inspired to express their piety by painting on the walls. “We think most of these paintings are instances of graffiti because they seem very random – they don’t appear to have a system and many of them are quite crude in artistic terms.”

However, one set of paintings is almost certainly not an act of vandalism. They embellish the walls of the Bakan, the sanctuary located in the uppermost tier of Angkor Wat and the most sacred space in the whole temple.

“All the other paintings are simple and were created independently of each other, but in the Bakan there are entire compositions” says Tan. “They’re much more elaborate, they’re painted with considerably more artistic skill, and they have a stylistic unity.”

Bordered with pretty, diamond-shaped floral motifs, one scene depicts a Khmer pinpeat, a traditional musical ensemble.

Tan thinks the Bakan paintings could be relics of work undertaken to restore the temple.

“Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century, in what was then the capital of the Khmer Empire, and was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. Some time during the 14th or 15th century the capital was moved to Phnom Penh, the Angkor area was depopulated and the temple went into decline.”

In the mid 16th century King Ang Chan moved the capital back to Angkor Wat and set about restoring it to its former glory.

King Ang Chan converted the Bakan from a Hindu space to a Buddhist space. We think that the paintings belong to this period and were commissioned as part of the restoration work.”

Tan hopes that other researchers will continue to investigate the paintings.

“There are other questions to answer, such as the meaning of the Bakan paintings and what they depict,” he says. “And we don’t yet know the age of the paintings. But if we can establish the composition of the pigments it might be possible to use carbon dating to find out.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Hidden ‘graffiti’ of Angkor Wat revealed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 1:47am

UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 4:22am


Published by

Robert Chaen

Global CEO-Founder of ChangeU and Movsha Movers & Shakers, Hero-CEO Whisperer, Writer, The #1 Alpha Change Expert, Father of Asian FireWalking Robert Chaen is an International Keynote Speaker, writer, researcher, and corp games designer. He is famously known to be the “Hero-CEO Whisperer”, 1-on1 coaching with many CEOs and Celebrities for corporate strategies, staff & office political issues, personal branding, and even public figure OSHA safety drilling called Drager Defense. He has transformed CEOs and managers in Coca-Cola China, TVB Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airport Services, VADS, TM, Public Bank, Auditor General's Office Maldives, etc. He is the prolific creator and online Author of innovative management tools such as DragonCEO, Diamond Leader, Papillon Personal Effectiveness, OSHA Drager Defense, KPI Bank, etc. He is also the Founder of Movsha, an international networking with monthly mingles with MOVers & SHAkers, Angels, Entrepreneurs, CEOs, Celebrities, HR-PR-CSR, HODs, and the Most Influential IDEA people. ​Chaen is widely considered as one of the top International Platform Keynote Speakers for Resorts World Genting Senior Management Conference (Manila), 7-Eleven HK, Samsung, Coca-Cola China Mini-MBA @Tsing Hua University, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Jockey Club, The Story Conference where he interviewed Datuk Kamarudin (Chairman of AirAsia) and Siti Nurhaliza. He has been widely featured in TVB, AWSJ, CNBC, SCMP, The Star, and Sin Chew. As “The Father of Asian FireWalking”, he coached TVB celebrities (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin) to walk on 650°C fire; and raised HK$68M in the world’s 1st and only live TV Charity FireWalk (TVB Tung Wah Charity Show), before Tony Robbins even came to Asia. If Robert can get you to walk on 650⁰C fire, he can inspire you to be THE BEST. He champions CN-HK-EU-US Tycoons to be philanthropic, and to be angel investors to support the next generation of Jack Mas, Steve Jobs, Richard Bransons, Steven Spielbergs, or Barrack Obamas. With some slick motivational speakers with fake doctorates out there, graduates often describe Robert to be "the most credible, empowering, truthful Coach" who believe in his graduates to believe in themselves. ​However, clients have described Robert as "The #1 Cool Badass Alpha Change Expert". He has the coolest first class stature, rapport and trust from clients. He will not hesitate to tell the badass truth ever so gently because clients are paying him big bucks to reveal the truth, find solutions, persuade the hostile HODs, and align cross-teams within the organization. Originally based in Hong Kong for 20+ years, he had worked with top Branding/Ad agencies at J Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett, and was a certified FranklinCovey (7 Habits) in USA, and NLP MasterCoach (USA). His warmth is known to soften the most hardened, resistant sceptics. He will inspire your team to Go for Top 1, or to be a Dragon CEO. With boundless energies, Robert owns 15+ successful business Joint-Ventures, and created unique products under his global VC network called Chaen's Angels VC. He is deeply passionate about ChangeUTH Youth CSR, Science-Based Medicine (vs. quackery), short films and Reality TV. Touched by a personal tragedy through the loss of his HK-born Portuguese wife, co-coach and business partner, Brenda José of 18 years, Robert explores the many ways in which the spirit world is communicating with the living with real scientific studies and evidence. He gives inspiring conferences on The Secret Afterlife.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s