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Archaeologists Discover Ancient Stone Turtle in Drained Angkor Reservoir

The reservoir houses the remnants of a centuries-old temple now undergoing excavation

A large sandstone turtle unearthed at last week at the Angkor Wat temple complex (Courtesy of the Apsara Authority)
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Last Wednesday, archaeologists conducting excavations at the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia unearthed a large stone turtle statue thought to date to the tenth century A.D., reports Sopheng Cheang for the Associated Press. The sculpture is one of several rare artifacts recovered from the temporarily drained Srah Srang reservoir since work began in mid-March.

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, researchers found the sandstone turtle while excavating the site of a small temple that once stood on an artificial island in the middle of the reservoir. After the team determined the temple’s location earlier this year, workers lowered the reservoir’s water level enough to allow the dig to commence, Mao Sokny, an archaeologist with the Aspara Authority, which oversees the temple complex, tells the AP.

The turtle is 23 inches wide and 37 inches long, according to the AP. Its shell is blank aside from a square etched in its center, Chea Socheat, director of the excavation project, tells the Khmer Times’ Pech Sotheary.

“The turtle is known as one of the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu,” says Socheat. “Sometimes, turtles are placed as a votive object in a temple’s foundations or at its center.”

Many of the temples and structures at Angkor—capital of the Khmer civilization between the 9th and 15th centuries A.D.—were dedicated to Hindu deities including Shiva and Vishnu, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat itself spans some 400 acres near what is now the city of Siĕmréab.

Socheat tells the Khmer Times that preliminary assessments suggest the large turtle was buried beneath the temple to ensure the site’s safety and prosperity. He adds that it may have been “a valuable stone … placed for the celebration of any religious ceremony during that time.”

Srah Srang, Angkor, Cambodia
Archaeologists discovered a large stone turtle and several other centuries-old artifacts at the Srah Srang reservoir in Angkor, Cambodia. (Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Last week’s excavations proved particularly fruitful for Socheat and his colleagues: Shortly before the discovery of the stone turtle, the team unearthed two metal tridents, crystals and a sculpture of a mythical serpentine creature known as a naga. On Friday, the archaeologists found another smaller turtle and two sculpted fish, according to an Apsara Authority press release.

As Socheat tells Soth Koemsoeun of the Phom Penh Post, previous excavations at the Neak Pean temple—which is similarly situated on an artificial island in the middle of an Angkor reservoir—yielded a smaller turtle that resembled the newly unearthed one. Hidden within the sculpture were precious stones, bronze threads and a cloth wrapped in a type of grain associated with Vishnu religious rituals.

Angkor’s ancient leaders relied on the city’s complex system of water engineering to accumulate and maintain power via rice agriculture, wrote Joshua Rapp Learn for Smithsonian magazine in February. Per National Geographic’s Richard Stone, the imperial capital “became a medieval powerhouse thanks to a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs that enabled the city to hoard scarce water in dry months and disperse excess water during the rainy season.”

Today, those visiting Angkor during the region’s dry season can spot the remains of the Srah Srang temple jutting out above the reservoir’s waterline. During the wet season, the temple is “completely swallowed” by heavy rainfall, according to Xinhua.

The larger stone turtle’s top half has been excavated, but the researchers plan on leaving its lower half buried until they can determine a way to safely lift and move the relic, reports the AP.

“Although previous studies were conducted about the temple, there has been no in-depth research about it [showing] where various objects have been buried,” Socheat tells the Khmer Times. “Our recent discovery can help explain the history of the temple, including the religious ceremonies that were once performed here.”

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