Angkor’s longest-running conservation saga, the fifty-year restoration of the Baphuon temple is a dramatic illustration of the pitfalls and perils of field archeology in action. Work on the temple began in 1959 under the supervision of French architects, who decided that the only way to save Baphuon from collapse was to dismantle the vast structure piece by piece and then put it all back together again – a technique known as “anastylosis”. The temple was therefore dismantled in preparation for its reconstruction, only for war to break out, after which work was abandoned in 1971.
All might have been well, even so, had the Khmer Rouge not decided, in a moment of whimsical iconoclasm, to destroy every last archeological record relating to work on the temple, including plans showing how the hundreds of thousands of stones that had been taken apart were intended to fit back together again. Meaning that when restoration work finally restarted in 1995 conservators were faced (as Pascal Royere, who oversaw the project, put it) with “a three-dimensional, 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture”.
Progress, not surprisingly, was slow, and it wasn’t until 2011 that restorations were finally concluded (at a total cost of $14m) and the temple restored to something approaching its former glory. Numerous unindentified stones can still be seen laid out around the complex, even so – unplaced pieces in a great archeological jigsaw that will never entirely be solved.