How the Study of Past Civilisations Can Help the Cities of the Future

The megacity of Angkor was once the capital of the Khmer nation, an empire which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th century. With a population near 1 million and an extent of roughly 1000 square kilometers, Greater Angkor was the largest pre-industrial metropolis in the world. Set in today’s Cambodia, Angkor is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by two million tourists per year, but also a historical case of the growth and demise of a human-made urban complex exposed to severe climatic instability. Roland Fletcher is a Professor of Theoretical and World Archaeology at the University of Sydney and the Director of the Greater Angkor Project, an international cooperation which has been studying the urban landscape since 2002. Combining ground surveys, tree-ring dating and excavations with technologies such as airborne laser imaging (Lidar), Fletcher and his group have gained new insights into the development of Greater Angkor and the risks it faced. Their studies have shown that the extensive, low-density settlement, cleared its landscape of natural vegetation for agricultural purposes and was dependent on a massive infrastructure –conditions which made it vulnerable to extreme climatic instability. Roland Fletcher shows how these conditions have resonance in the 21st century – at a time when megacities and climate change are more prevalent than ever before in human history.

Over the past thirty years, Roland Fletcher, currently Professor at the University of Sydney, has developed a global and interdisciplinary perspective in Archaeology, that integrates research, teaching and service. His fields of expertise are the theory and philosophy of archaeology, the study of settlement growth and decline and the analysis of large-scale cultural phenomena over time. In 1995 he published The Limits of Settlement Growth: a theoretical outline – an analysis of the past 15,000 years of settlement-growth and decline – with Cambridge University Press. He has an international reputation as a radical theorist and as the instigator of the Angkor Research Program, which derives from my theoretical work and is part of a major research program in Cambodia.

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