Research student profile: Sam Player

Project title

Reconstructing the Angkorian Channel Network

Project overview

I am working on an ancient water management system at Angkor, Cambodia. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire and as far as can be told was occupied between the 9th to 15th/16th centuries AD. Angkor is home to the largest collection of monumental architecture in the world but can equally be regarded for the extent of its water management system, which diverts local stream systems to feed massive artificial reservoir (one of which is 2 km wide by 8 km long), and possibly to irrigate the surrounding lands. In the 1950's it was proposed that mismanagement of the water resource may have contributed to the abandonment of Angkor. The hypothetical scenario is that the channel system irrigated the landscape and so produced an agricultural surplus allowing a large population to develop. At some point and for some unknown reason, the channel system could no longer be maintained thereby making it unusable for irrigation and unable to produce the required surplus of rice. My research is essentially trying to demonstrate whether this hypothesis holds any water!

Since the idea was first proposed it has never been empirically demonstrated or refuted. Certainly there is no evidence that the channels were used to irrigate rice fields other than the fact they are there. Debate has so far been theoretical and no systematic invasive investigations of the known channels have ever been conducted. Nevertheless the concept of Angkorian mismanagement has permeated into the consciousness of contemporary environmental management for the area. Current mismanagement of the water resource always seems to be referred back to the Angkorian's and their abandonment of the area. So although my research works towards solving an archaeological question, there are clear implications for current management. Did the Angkorian's mismanage their water and did this contribute to their leaving the area? How did they mismanage it and is this comparable to contemporary use of the water resource?

The methodology I am following is relatively simple and involves invasive investigation of the cross-sectional profiles of a number of (possible) major channels. Firstly I measure the topography of a transect and from that decide where to locate investigations of the soil by augering. After describing and sampling the soils I find two locations, one inside and one outside the channel, where I dig 1 by 2 m pits. I then describe the pits and take samples for micromorphological analysis.

Essentially I am trying to kill two birds with one stone. Firstly I am examining the sediments as these are direct evidence as to what actually happened to the channels. The sediments partially record the history of water flow over time given that coarser sediments will indicate faster flowing water than finer sediments. Secondly I am trying to map the cross-sectional dimensions of the channels. These can be incorporated into hydrological models which can be used to predict the outcome of sedimentation and erosion for different scenarios. Theoretically, we may be able to come upon a solution which both the direct evidence of the sediments and the theoretical evidence of the model both agree with.

A first priority is to identify through pedological evidence whether the 'channels' are indeed channels or not. Some may well be roads. Cambodia is very low lying and flat and so roads often consist of raised earthen mounds. The source of the earthen mound is usually from the soil material directly adjacent to it, so the perverse consequence of building one is that you unintentionally create a channel next to it.

The main benefit of this project is that it will contribute towards solving a major archaeological problem that has been debated for over half a century. In solving that problem though we essentially gain a record, albeit imperfect, of the agricultural practices that have been conducted in this area over the long-term. This is significant in that it provides a benchmark for which to compare contemporary concepts of 'sustainability'. The resources of the area are once again under pressure due to the alarming development of the nearby town of Siem Reap, which takes advantage of the extensive tourist trade.


I was born in Leicester, England and moved to Sydney in 1990 and although I'm fully Australianised I like to say I'm English just to annoy people. I started a Bachelor of Arts in 1998 majoring in Archaeology and Celtic Studies with a bit of Geology on the side. It turned out I was better at Geology so in 2000 I also took up a Bachelor of Science majoring in Geology and Soil Science. I completed Honours in Soil Science in 2005 focussing on ancient Angkorian channels. I don't have any other qualifications although I can dress myself and can complete a range of household chores.

In 2007 the Faculty granted me the Thomas Lawrence Pawlett Scholarship

In 2004 I was awarded the Brian G Davey Memorial Scholarship in Soil Science

The have attended a number of conferences which are reflected in my current publication list


  • Player, S. (2008) The Angkorian Hydrological Landscape: Reconstructing the Causes and Effects. Paper presented at the Sixth World Archaeology Congress, University College Dublin, Dublin, June 29 – July 4.
  • Player, S. (2007) Reconstructing the Angkorian Hydrological Network. Paper presented at the 17th Congress of the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA), July 28-August 3.
  • Player, S. & Somaneath, T. (2006) Estimating Discharge for Angkorian Channels. Paper presented at the Angkor: Landscape, City and Temple conference, University of Sydney, July 18-23.
  • Player, S., Vanags, C., Hendrickson, M., Ratchna, C., Chan, K., and Fletcher, R. (2006) Geophysical Applications on the Angkor Plain. Paper presented at the 18th Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, University of the Philippines, Manila, March 20-26.
  • Player, S. (2005) Geo-prospecting the Canals of Angkor: a Preliminary Investigation. Paper presented at the Khmer Studies Symposium, University of Sydney, August 8.



More research student profiles