11 - The work of the École Française d'Extrême Orient

The first known documentation relating to the Khmer monuments came, as we have seen, from descriptions given by Chinese envoys, and notably by Tcheou Ta-Kouan at the end of the 13th century - that is to say before their abandonment. Thereafter, from the 16th century onwards, the Angkor ruins frequently drew the attention of missionaries and merchants from the west, but it was only in the second half of the 19th century that they began to interest the archaeologists and scholars. The account of the voyage by P. Bouillevaux in 1856 and the enthusiastic descriptions by the naturalist Henri Mouhot, discovering Angkor Wat in 1860, opened the way for several foreign explorers, such as the German Bastian and the British Thomson and Kennedy, and then for the official missions by Doudart de Lagrée, Francis Garnier and Delaporte - the latter returning to France with some sculptures and moulds, presenting them to the public at the Paris Exhibition of 1878. At the same time the Dutchman Kern, followed by Barth and Bergaigne, deciphered the first of the stone inscriptions, while Moura, Aymonier, Pavie, Fournereau and General de Beylié, amongst others, considerably increased the bounds of acquired knowledge.

In 1898 the Governor General Paul Doumer resolved to co-ordinate all effort and to give the monuments the scientific directive that they lacked. He therefore founded the École Française d'Extrême Orient, placed under the control of the "Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres", with a mission to study from a historic, monumental and linguistic point of view the various countries of the Indo-Chinese Union, to assure protection to the archaeological sites and to prepare an inventory of the temples. It was under the enlightened direction of Louis Finot and Alfred Foucher that Lunet de Lajonquiere, Henri Parmentier, Dufour and Carpeaux thus began the methodical exploration of the Cambodian monuments.

The treaty of 1907, in assuring the return by Siam of the original provinces that she had taken, finally allowed a resolute and fruitful devotion to the task at hand - the research and the safeguarding of the monuments of the Angkor region. The first "Conservator", Jean Commaille, was murdered by robbers in 1916 after eight years of good work undertaken in extremely difficult conditions. Henri Marchal replaced him, followed in 1932 by Georges Trouvé - who also died tragically in 1935 - then Jacques Lagisquet (1935-1936) and Maurice Glaize (1936-1946).(5) Profiting the world simultaneously with their scholarly research were Maître, Aurousseau and Georges Cœdes, succeeded by Finot and Foucher, with Parmentier, Marchal and Claeys as heads of the Service Archéologique, while also working closely with the École were Mssrs Georges Groslier (the director of Cambodian Arts), Philippe Stern (the associate Conservator of the Musée Guimet) and Mme. de Coral-Remusat - along with Victor Goloubew, Paul Mus, Henri Mauger and Pierre Dupont.


The archaeological domain of Angkor provided the École Française d'Extrême Orient with an endless field of research.

Since its inauguration the EFEO has endeavoured to keep the sites clear with the removal of vegetation and the freeing of the temple bases from the accumulated piles of earth and rubble, raising and classifying the fallen stones while attending to immediate dangers with provisional measures - already a colossal task since it is a question no less of preventing the devouring forces of nature from destroying the work of man.

The ruin in fact - except with some rare exceptions - can not be attributed to the brutal action of conquerors or of vandals. The Khmer monuments survived their own civilisation, only suffering a slow death after abandonment "to the ravages of time" and the relentless growth of vegetation that was no longer controlled, together with the humidity of a tropical climate and undermining by termites.

To maintain each monument just in the state in which it was revealed by clearing, to refrain from major work and consolidation other than to what is visible, to stabilise sinking or leaning elements which may cause collapse using only simple supports or straps that can be as ugly as they can unreliable - these for a long time were the limited objectives of the directors of Indo-Chinese archaeology, alarmed as they were by some audacious monumental restoration undertaken in France during the 19th century.

Such measures, in creating new possibilities for the study of the ruins, allowed them - due to the discovery of the inscriptions, the bas-reliefs and the statues - to reveal some of their secrets and to reawaken. But how to see in these precarious and crumbling ruins, even after their clearing and the basic classification of their rubble, more than just mere evidence - and not to sense a calling for their reconstruction?

The complete interpretation, which by means of patient research and the analysis of all the constituent elements leads to an architectural synthesis, is the only one that allows one to deepen and exhaust the subject - and it is incompatible with chaos. The confusion and the dilapidation of the ruins too often prevent the researcher from going beyond the emotions felt by his artistic or poetic heart - yet by reconstituting the whole from its scattered parts strictly in its ancient form and by the same technical means previously used, he can bring it once again to life.

For some time now, both in Greece and Java, the method known as anastylosis has made it possible to regenerate the monuments and to re-establish their integrity. "Anastylosis" - Balanos, the conservator of the Monuments of the Athens Acropolis tells us - "consists of the re-establishment or rebuilding of a monument with its own materials and according to its own methods of construction. Anastylosis allows the discreet and justified use of new materials in replacement of missing stones without which the original elements could not be repositioned".

As such, in a veritable 'jigsaw puzzle', the pieces of the game can weigh many hundreds of kilograms, sometimes tonnes, and the player is forbidden to remake any sculpture, moulding or decoration, with complete disregard for his own personality.

Having first cleared the surroundings and removed all vegetation, the sections of walling that still remain standing are taken down course by course ,with each block being numbered, and then reconstructed, after cleaning the beds and joints, with the help of numerous drawings and photographs. At the same time the stones found in the rubble which have tumbled from the crumbling upper walls are re-assembled according to the location of their natural fall, sorted by categories and divided by vertical location. These are then progressively reconstructed on the ground with their fundamental elements - doors and false doors, pilasters and corner piers, lintels, frontons, bases and cornices - with rough blocks cut as necessary to fill the voids. It then only remains to proceed with the reconstruction and to complement the original methods of securing with the aid of hidden cement grouting in the blockwork and iron cramps to assure proper bonding.

Anastylosis, so admirably suited to the art of the Khmer that is so exceptionally traditionalist and unchanging in the relationship between its principal elements and so lacking in any individualistic tendencies on the part of the builder, was introduced to Cambodia by Henri Marchal on his return from a study trip to Java where he saw and was convinced by the excellence of its methodology. Employed by him at Banteay Srei towards the end of 1931 and advocated by Mr Cœdes, it has already enabled the reconstruction in the Angkor group of the gopura of Prah Palilay, of Neak Pean and its pools - previously barely known - of Banteay Samre and of Bakong, the Victory gate and the north and south gates of Angkor Thom - the first two preceded by their line of giants holding the naga - many of the sanctuaries of Prah Khan and the crumbling towers and the central core of the Bayon. All these saved from near ruin.

We appreciate that some - with an appetite for the picturesque and for whom nothing matters but the dramatic romanticism symbolised by the vision of some piece of wall crumbling under a weight of roots - may bemoan the former condition of the monuments, but we believe nonetheless that there is more to be gained from the French tradition of rediscovering the 'truth' of a monument by means of its anastylosis. It becomes a work of clarity, though never clinical, that above all respects the forest setting by making of each temple site a glade within it. By way of an example we have left some compositions, such as Ta Prohm, "in a natural state" - but for the rest, the spectacular could not take precedence over archaeological preoccupation. The reconstructed but deserted sanctuaries inspire - according to the imagination of each - as much lyricism as melancholy, and the accomplished work, of a scientific precision that perfectly conforms to current thinking, assures the improvement of the building without harm to its character.


Since 1921, the 'Aéronautique Indochinoise' has been organised by Ct. Glaize, and aerial photographs by Ct. Borzecki and Ct. Cassé have given the archaeologists a new understanding of the region. The chief of the archaeological service, Mr Claeys, benefited, even before the war, from the same statute as R.P. Poidebard in Syria. Certain pilots, such as Ct Terrassu, bring the results of their own observations.

At Angkor, revelations from aerial photographs were particularly fruitful. The identification of superimposed enclosure walls, successive alterations and the trace of abandoned sites allowed V. Goloubew to place the location of the first capital of the 9th century.

At Prah Khan of Kompong Thom, near Sambor, the aeroplane enabled the discovery of enclosure walls, of various alignments and of the barays that give Khmer archaeology the quality of its composition, urbanism and of the grand axial compositions following astrological principles. These were quite unsuspected before aerial observation.