Excavation Carried out during the Restoration of Angkor Thom’s Victory Bridge

An Sopheap, an archaeologist of the APSARA National Authority, during an interview at the excavation site. Photo: Isa Rohany

SIEM REAP — While most visitors use the southern bridge known as Tonle Om to enter Angkor Thom, this walled city also has causeways on its north and west sides as well as two on its east side with each one built in the same design.

Even though the four other causeways are less used, restoration work has been conducted at each of them to ensure the structural stability of the bridges as well as to preserve them as they were built and designed centuries ago. 

One of the bridges being studied is the Victory bridge, which is located on the eastern side of Angkor Thom, slightly north of the eastern bridge.

Caption: Angkor Thom city's Victory bridge and gate during a gloomy day on May 13, 2024. Photo: Isa Rohany

An Sopheap, an archaeologist of the APSARA National Authority—the Cambodian government body managing the Angkor Archeological Park—has spent several weeks excavating at the site and studying the foundations of this stone bridge.

“Even though my team started recently, other teams working on risk assessment have been at this site for quite a long time [and built] an extensive database of information,” he said. “My team is here to provide additional data for the work.”

The bridges of Angkor Thom city are actually works of art featuring 54 statues of devas (heavenly beings) and 54 statues of asuras (celestial spirits) lining each side of the bridges, holding five-headed nagas in a tug-of-war fashion as in a scene of the mythical Hindu tale the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which appears at several pre-Angkorian and Angkorian sites in Cambodia.

The gates of the bridges also feature extensive and intricate designs including a large 4-face figure located in the middle at the top and adorned with three-headed elephants holding lotuses, and protruding heavenly figures at the corners.

These five bridges at Angkor Thom were used to cross the moat surrounding the city as the mythical sea of milk.

Today, several heads of the sculpted figures on these bridges are no longer at their original places. “According to documents at the APSARA Authority, experts do know the location of around 50-to-60 percent of the statues’ heads,” Sopheap said. “Some were taken to the Angkor Conservation repository [in Siem Reap city], the Angkor National Museum as well as other locations in the country and overseas.”

Moreover, he said, “luckily, during our recent excavation, we found the head of a deva. After analysis, we know that this head belongs to the 23rd deva.

“Each head is quite heavy,” Sopheap said. “Even though the French did restore this [Victory] gate bridge in the 1920s, the restoration was not sufficiently extensive and it left many weak points that needed to be assessed [today].”

Work on this gate bridge will need to include strengthening the bodies of the statues and all of the connecting parts in the foundation underneath before the heads can be placed back on, Sopheap said. The builders of the Angkorian era built the foundations by digging a void and filling it with compacted sand, he said. Once this done, five to seven levels of stone blocks would be put on top of it. “At the moment, we have reached the sand level, but we still have not reached the very bottom yet.

“Based on our hypothesis, the bridge was restored once during the middle period, somewhere around the 16th century,” Sopheap said. As a result, the bottom layers are considered sufficiently strong by experts, he said.

Still, some parts of the upper section restored by the French archeologists in the 1920s are experiencing structural issues, which is why Sopheap plans to conduct two more excavations on the upper level of the bridge to better analyse its structural integrity.

In addition to being used by the thousands of visitors, these bridges are frequented used by local residents to get to and from their villages in the area as well as by some tourists who take the time to stroll in and around the site.

Angkor Thom is an enclosed city with thick high laterite stone walls and a large moat measuring three kilometres on all four sides. The compound houses a great number of temples of many sizes and designs, ponds, reservoirs as well as the site of the former royal palace and Buddhist pagodas.

The city’s central temple is the Bayon, which was built in the late 12th to early 13th century by King Jayavarman VII.

Conducted in Khmer for ThmeyThmey Digital Media, the story was translated by Ky Chamna for Cambodianess.

Related Stories:

Angkor Thom: the Khmer Empire’s Enclosed and Complex 12th Century City

The Five Gateways of Angkor Thom

The Enclosure Wall of Angkor Thom

To watch the interview in Khmer language, click here.

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