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500-Year-Old Wall Paintings Revealed from Angkor Wat

A series of previously unnoticed images consisting of paintings of boats, animals, deities and buildings has been discovered on the walls of Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat temple. Rock art researchers believe the paintings belong to a specific phase of the temple’s history in the 16th century CE when it was converted from a Vishnavaite Hindu use to Theravada Buddhist.

Angkor Wat temple complex.

Angkor Wat temple complex.

Noel Hidalgo Tan, a researcher at Australian National University’s Department of Archaeology and Natural History, discovered some previously unnoticed paintings on the walls of the ancient Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia when he was working as a volunteer at an archaeological excavation there in 2010.

In vivid description of the boats, animals, deities and buildings, these paintings were drawn at a specific stage of the temple’s history in the 16th century CE when it was experiencing its transformation period from a Vishnavaite Hindu use to Theravada Buddhist.

Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is regarded as one of the most widely recognized heritages in the world as well as a national symbol of Cambodia. Located in the center of the city of Angkor,   Angkor Wat used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire during the period from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

elephants at Angkor Wat temple

This is an image of the painted elephants at Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, with no enhancement above, and with enhancement below. Image credit: Noel Hidalgo Tan.

When Mr. Tan was wandering around the temple on a lunch break, he incidentally noticed some pigments on the wall. At that time, he just took a few photos, but did not realize they would become amazing findings.

In 2012, Mr. Tan and his Cambodian colleagues Im Sokrithy, Heng Than and Khieu Chan started a detailed investigation of these paintings in the temple.

In dark areas of the temple, the paintings were greatly faded to the naked eye. They were previously thought to be graffiti scribed by early visitors to the temple.

Angkor wat2

A hidden image at Angkor Wat temple showing life scenes. The enhanced image is below, and the original image is above. Image credit: Noel Hidalgo Tan.

However, it was surprisingly found by Mr. Tan and his team that these paintings presented the vivid pictures of daily life, with little resemblance to graffiti images documented before.

In their report published in the journal of Antiquity, the researchers believed that the paintings were drawn in the 16th century reign of King Ang Chan, who sponsored a restoration project on the temple, which was then converted from a Vishnavaite Hindu temple to Theravada Buddhist use.

 Journal reference: Noel Hidalgo Tan et al. 2014. The hidden paintings of Angkor Wat. Antiquity, vol. 88, no. 340, pp. 549–565