Angkor Wat
Researchers found Angkor Wat is far larger and more complicated than believedDennis Jarvis/Flickr

Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, is much more complex than researchers first thought. Archaeologists have uncovered a very large structure on the Buddhist temple's south side, as well as a series of residential homes and wooden fortification structures.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have used ground-penetrating radar, airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) technology, and targeted excavation to discover the truth about Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

As part of the Greater Angkor Project, the archaeologists found that the temple grounds are much bigger than first imagined, and they discovered a large, 1500m long structure on the south side of the grounds. What it actually is, or its purpose, is yet to be discovered.

"This structure, which has dimensions of more than 1500m by 600m, is the most striking discovery associated with Angkor Wat to date," said Roland Fletcher, one of the leaders of the research team. "Its function remains unknown and, as yet, it has no known equivalent in the Angkorian world."

Fortification structures were also found. Wooden structures surrounded the Angkor Wat complex, and offers clues as to how the temple made its final stand against neighbouring Autthaya.

"Angkor Wat is the first and only known example of an Angkorian temple being systematically modified for use in a defensive capacity," said Fletcher. He added: "The available evidence suggests it was a late event in the history of Angkor, either between AD 1297 and 1585, or perhaps sometime between AD 1585 and the 1630s. Either date makes the defences of Angkor Wat one of the last major constructions at Angkor and is perhaps indicative of its end."

The discoveries, published in Antiquity, detail the findings of small houses around the surrounding areas, as well as a road network and ponds. Researchers believe that these could have been the living quarters for people working within the temple.

Fletcher said: "This challenges our traditional understanding of the social hierarchy of the Angkor Wat community and shows that the temple precinct, bounded by moat and wall, may not have been exclusively the preserve of the wealthy or the priestly elite."

It is understood that King Suryavarman II built the temple in the 12th century, and it was constructed for his funeral. The temple faces west to signify the setting sun – and death.