FW: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Civilization of Angkor
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From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
Sent: Monday, January 27, 2003 6:04 PM
Subject: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Civilization of Angkor
The Civilization of Angkor
University of California Press 2001
192 pages, b&w photographs, references, index
A book review by Danny Yee
Angkor Wat is one temple in a complex of buildings and reservoirs that
covers several hundred square kilometres -- and which in turn is just
the most remarkable remnant of the kingdom of Angkor. Covering that
kingdom and its precursors, _The Civilization of Angkor_ is a general
history of Cambodia from prehistory down to the fall of Angkor in 1431.
It is a broad and accessible synthesis aimed at a general audience,
not an academic work, but it is not at all sensationalised or dramatised.
The Iron Age prehistory of the area saw vigorous and powerful societies,
where some individuals were buried "with opulent grave goods and
much ritual". From around 150 to 550 AD the Mekong delta state of
Funan extended its reach well up the Mekong river. But changes in
international trade patterns -- or perhaps the growing importance of rice
-- saw the centre of power move to the central Cambodian plain, where
from 550 to 800 there were a series of states. These were dominated by
hereditary aristocrats with Sanskrit names, which Higham argues were
"an Indic veneer", a "self-interested use of the exotic to enhance
From around 800 there was a centralised state with a capital at Angkor.
Though periodically disrupted by conflicts over succession -- exacerbated
by a system of descent to sister's sons -- this maintained an underlying
continuity down to 1431, when Angkor was abandoned following its sack by
armies of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya. Higham divides the period into
three dynasties: one founded by Jayavarman II to 1000, a dynasty of "Sun"
kings to 1080, and a dynasty started by Jayavarman VI (from Mahidharapura,
north of the Dang Raek mountains).
Higham's approach is basically chronological, following the political
history, but he also covers social and economic developments.
"The king had the right to donate land to faithful retainers
and to confiscate it from his enemies. Expansion into new
territory, such as the Mun Valley, may have changed little,
other than according the local overlord a title, high-status
gifts and binding him in loyalty to the centre. A land grant
was usually followed by the foundation of a family or lineage
temple, together with priests, reservoirs, animals and workers.
By investing capital in the form of buffaloes and cattle,
seed and ploughs, the owners brought new land into production,
a proportion of which was donated to a state temple.
... There must also have been a major salt-making industry, and
boatbuilders for the barges that plied the Mekong. Blacksmiths,
weavers, traders and miners do not emerge from the inscriptions,
but their output leaves no doubt as to their presence."
The monumental evidence is illustrated with sixteen pages of black
and white photographs and a nice series of maps showing the growth
of the Angkor complex. "Virtually no archaeological research has
been undertaken beyond Angkor", however, and little is known about
broader settlement patterns. Higham also draws on inscriptions and
accounts by visiting Chinese travellers. And he deploys a little
general anthropological theory, on topics such as state formation,
with comparisons to Mesoamerican and African states.
In the debate over the purpose of the huge reservoirs associated with
Angkor temples, Higham sides with those emphasizing symbolic goals rather
"In terms of architecture, Angkor is, par excellence, the
outstanding example of building in the name of majesty and
sacred power. The role of the king in interceding with the
deified ancestors, and ordering the construction of reservoirs
containing temples that literally removed a person's sins and
assured a better rebirth, again reflects the importance of
Rice cultivation was probably based on flood-retreat irrigation rather
than large-scale centralised systems.
%T The Civilization of Angkor
%A Higham, Charles
%I University of California Press
%O hardcover, b&w photos, references, index
%G ISBN 0-520-23442-1
%K medieval history, Southeast Asia, archaeology
%Z a history of Cambodia to 1431
22 January 2003
Copyright (c) 2003 Danny Yee http://danny.oz.au/
Danny Yee's Book Reviews http://dannyreviews.com/
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