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The Cambodian World Heritage site, Angkor Wat, is finally being restored

An ongoing effort to restore the ancient site has international teams working altogether but using radically different approaches, resulting in unexpected order

When there are half a dozen teams of different nationalities working separately on different temples within a single ancient site in a country which has little experience in preservation, it appears the perfect recipe for chaos. In this free-for-all, there might well be the temptation to experiment on new techniques and chemicals, in the knowledge that there will be little monitoring of what is being done.

And yet, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, said to be the world’s single largest archaeological site, now presents a picture of order, with none of the problems one may associate with such a multi-national endeavour. This is largely thanks to the efforts of UNESCO, which recognised Angkor as a World Heritage Site in 1992 and formed an International Co-ordination Committee (ICC). Its co-Presidents are the French and Japanese Ambassadors in Phnom Penh, France and Japan being at the forefront of the conservation campaign.

“Any proposal from any country, including Cambodia itself, is referred to the ICC,” said M.C. Ragavan, who heads its documentation centre in Siem Reap, the town where Angkor is located.

In addition to France and Japan, there are teams of restorers from Germany, the US and China. The Indonesians had to return home in the wake of the financial crisis a few years ago but had completed their task. Much earlier, during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, there were teams from Hungary, the USSR and Italy.

The French abandoned Angkor during the Vietnam war, which was followed by the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnamese invasion, but are now painstakingly resuming work at the Baphuon temple, which has a 40-metre-long reclining Buddha. According to Pascal Royere, a French architect, “This restoration programme has been going on since 1995 with support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is actually an extension of one of the greatest and most time-consuming challenges taken on by the different conservators working at Angkor.

“Nothing was done until the late 1950s, when a choice had to be made either to restore the monument completely or let it just fall apart. The Angkor Conservation Office (then run by the French) opted to act. Although invasive, such intervention was an appropriate overall response to the needs of the monument. The technical options selected were a reflection of the experience that the The Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient had gathered from its work on the monument dating back to the early years of the century. The “anastylosis” technique—meaning the reconstruction of a ruin using its own components—was the bottom line. We dismantled the entire structure, piece by piece, block by block and made an inventory of each piece, which we stored in the surrounding forest.”

“There are some 300,000 pieces scattered over 10 hectares; reassembling them is somewhat like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. To complicate matters, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the archives. The reclining Buddha is the biggest in Cambodia. Our work is like deciphering a book with several chapters: one has to sometimes depart from the script because the situation has completely changed.”

The German Angkor Conservation Programme (GACP) is engaged in conserving the Angkor Wat temple itself, considered the largest religious stone monument in the world, which UNESCO has also listed as one of the Sites in Danger. It is repairing 360 of the 1,850 sandstone apsaras (female figures) which “are in an extremely alarming state of decay”. Julia Diezemann, a conservationist from the University of Cologne, described how the team was using ethyl silicate to bind the stone. The harmful soluble salts consolidate with this chemical; when the alcohol evaporates, it leaves the silicate and quartz behind. The German experience in treating cathedrals like the one at Strasbourg, which are also made of sandstone, has come in handy. GACP’s approach is “to keep the carved surfaces as they are; otherwise, they would be a pile of stone.”

The Germans have spent DM 1.8 million so far and are employing the most modern computerised documentation and imaging techniques to preserve the monument. These include measuring in millimetres the amount of water entering the sandstone to arrive at a treatment to stabilise the surface. Ms Diezemann explained that ultrasonic techniques are sometimes employed to find the fastest way to treat a decaying structure. The Germans are also training Cambodians to undertake some of this work, so that they can preserve their own heritage in future.

Asked whether there was any danger of conflicting methods being employed at Angkor, Royere replied: “Each monument has a personality, just like each patient has its own symptoms and pathology. Each monument needs its own diagnosis. This will take into account the body size, the origin and so on.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The restoration Olympics'