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  • Angkor and the Khmer Civilization
  • Dawn F. Rooney
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Michael D. Coe. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. 240 pp., 130 illustrations (22 color), 14 maps. ISBN 0-500-02117-1.

This excellent book, written from an anthropological and archaeological perspective, brings a new balance to the increasing number of publications on Angkor. Although it is aimed at the general public, the substantial content, the time span covered, and results of the latest research make this book a useful source for specialists as well. Ample illustrations with descriptive captions support the concisely written text, which is set out in eight balanced chapters that develop chronologically. Numerous publications have focused on the Khmer civilization at its apogee in the Angkor period but say little about before and after that time. This book, however, covers the period from the beginning of recorded history to the French colonial domination in the twentieth century.

The author, Michael Coe, professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University and member of the National Academy of Sciences, is a respected scholar and author of numerous publications, and is renowned for his work on the people and art of the pre-Colombian New World. His books on the Maya civilization in Meso-america are highly acclaimed. He approaches his study of the Khmer civilization with the same quality and depth of scholarship that characterize his previous works.

Interpretations of the pioneering French are the foundation upon which modern archaeology proceeds. The surveying of Angkor began soon after the signing of a French protectorate over Cambodia in 1863. The clearing and preservation of Angkor was carried out for nearly three-quarters of the twentieth century under the auspices of the École Française d'Extrême Orient (EFEO), a scholarly body set up by the French colonial government in 1898 to [End Page 400] study the history, language, and archaeology of Indo-China. During that time, a chronology based on an art historical study of decorative elements on the temples was established and hundreds of inscriptions carved in stone were translated. By the middle of the twentieth century, the French were employing modern archaeological methods at Angkor. Then, Cambodia closed in the early 1970s for nearly two decades because of civil unrest. Between 1979 and 1989 limited work on the temples took place. It was only with a peace settlement in 1991 and the addition of Angkor to UNESCO's World Heritage Site list in late 1992 that conservation of the monuments at Angkor began again in earnest. Since then, numerous international organizations have worked with Cambodia on restoring and conserving the archaeological sites and conducting research in multiple disciplines. This book presents the latest results of the recent international fieldwork, which includes the production of large-scale images of the entire Angkor region using airborne synthetic radar.

Borders of the present-day countries on the mainland have fluctuated throughout history and at its height of territorial and political power the Khmer empire encompassed an area that included northeastern Thailand and southern Vietnam and parts of Malaysia and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Thus, Coe rightly examines the Khmer civilization and Angkor in the broader context of the region as a whole and points out both the cultural diversity and the similarities in the evolutionary development of the inhabitants, geography, religion, and language that unite mainland Southeast Asia as a cohesive region. Topographical features of mainland Southeast Asia are described with details of the alluvial Angkorian plain and the surrounding mountain chains. An explanation of rice farming in Cambodia provides useful information for a clearer understanding of the controversial topic of Khmer water management. Coe's next chapter includes a lucid explanation of the evolution of language, which pinpoints the complexity of the region. He deduces that a Khmer is "a person of Southeast Asian descent who speaks the Khmer language and practices the Theravada Buddhist religion (or at least has done so since this form of Buddhism was introduced as a state cult to Cambodia in the fifteenth century)" (p. 40).

Familiarity with the author's terminology (described in the introduction) for historical periods discussed in chapters 4–8 is helpful as it differs from...


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