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FW: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Civilization of Angkor

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    ... From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@ANATOMY.USYD.EDU.AU] Sent: Monday, January 27, 2003 6:04 PM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.BUFFALO.EDU Subject: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 27, 2003
      -----Original Message-----
      From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
      Sent: Monday, January 27, 2003 6:04 PM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Civilization of Angkor

      The Civilization of Angkor
      Charles Higham
      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
      personal prestige".

      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
      than irrigation.

      "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
      ritual authority."

      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
      %C Berkeley
      %D 2001
      %O hardcover, b&w photos, references, index
      %G ISBN 0-520-23442-1
      %P xv,192pp
      %K medieval history, Southeast Asia, archaeology
      %U http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/9793.html
      %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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