New Technology, Two Old Issues

by Don Friedman on October 18, 2016

Phnom Bakheng, Angkor, Cambodia by jasoneppink:


I was fascinated by this article in the New York Times for several reasons. Most obviously, as someone who has been fortunate enough to see the Angkor temple complexes, it’s amazing to find out how much I didn’t see – how much is hidden or buried.

There’s also the issue of trying to place extant buildings in history. It is difficult for us to truly put ourselves in the shoes of people who lived hundreds of years ago, and by doing so understand their relations with their built environment. (It can be difficult to truly understand the more recent past: someone studying New York history solely through photographs, for example, would not understand the sudden proliferation of sidewalk bridges after 1980, as high-rise facade inspections began.) The LIDAR evidence that the article describes provides a different set of data than that already in use, and therefore can confirm or rebut theories about the temples and ruins that remain.

There’s also the issue of unnatural selection. The buildings that survive are not necessarily indicative of their time. To use a European example, cathedrals are among the most common surviving buildings from 700 or 900 years ago. They were important in their societies when new, but, for example, the average Parisian may never have set foot in Notre Dame. The buildings that survive the longest and in the best condition tend to be monuments and they are, by definition, not typical. At Angkor, as described in the article, almost no physical remains of ordinary life on the city have survived, giving us a skewed view of the past there. I personally may overreact to this issue: I bend over so far backwards in research to look at buildings that are ordinary that I sometimes undervalue the monuments. A good shorthand for this issue is that the visual impression of a city or town is weighted towards the monumental buildings, but daily life is weighted away from them.

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