S'porean's discovery at Angkor Wat makes waves

S'porean's discovery at Angkor Wat makes waves

The discovery of a hundred never-before-seen paintings of deities, animals and musical instruments on the walls of Cambodia's Angkor Wat excited archaeologists worldwide when details came out in a journal last month.

The paintings, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, speak of a time when the Unesco World Heritage site underwent a transformation from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist one under 16th century leader King Ang Chan.

The man behind what experts call a "significant discovery" is a Singaporean: 35-year-old Noel Hidalgo Tan, who stumbled upon the markings in 2010 while volunteering at an excavation project at the 12th century site.

He was wandering around the temple during his lunch break when he spotted patches of faint red pigment in the chambers of the temple's uppermost tier.

He took photos of the spots as they looked similar to the prehistoric markings he had seen in South-east Asian caves - his main area of research as a final year PhD student at the Australian National University (ANU).

But he did not know he was on to something special. "It's a site that thousands of people pass by every day and hundreds of researchers have worked on. I didn't think it was something new and unexplored," he said.

Comprising 900-year-old towers, a large moat and bas-relief carvings of Hindu gods, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and features on Cambodia's national flag.

It was only in 2012, when Mr Tan showed the markings to Cambodian researchers, that he realised their significance.

Mr Tan then ran the images through the DStretch programme, which plays up colour differences and helps to distinguish between similar shades of colours.

He dedicated the next four months or so to analysing the paintings and setting them in the context of Angkor Wat's history, alongside archaeologist Im Sokrithy from the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (Apsara).

Mr Sokrithy, also head of communications at Apsara, said researchers have known of the existence of most of these paintings. "But we have not had the technology to document them in such detail and with such clarity."

The duo put out a paper on the subject earlier this month in Antiquity, a quarterly archaeological research journal.

It made waves in the archaeology community and Mr Tan's findings have been featured in international publications such as Time, Smithsonian and the Daily Mail.

The paper details the hundred newly discovered paintings and another hundred markings which Mr Tan documented. He grouped these paintings into five themes.

The paper notes that the paintings comprise a mixture of graffiti by pilgrims and visitors from the 16th century to the recent past and commissioned work by King Ang Chan and his successors.

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