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World Monuments Fund celebrates completion of conservation project at Angkor Wat
The sculptural friezes, which line the galleries of Angkor Wat and depict Hindu legends associated with the god Vishnu, had been damaged by water infiltration.

ANGKOR.- Bonnie Burnham, president of World Monuments Fund (WMF), today announced that WMF has completed a major conservation project at the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery at Angkor Wat, one of four ongoing WMF projects in the Angkor Archaeological Park being undertaken in partnership with the APSARA National Authority (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap).

Ms. Burnham stated: “We have learned a great deal about the construction of the Angkor Wat galleries. The gallery stones were set in such a way as to create a passive, interior drainage system carved into the roofing stones that allows water many ways to escape. We added a removable, impermeable layer of lead as additional protection to secure the gallery from further damage and were able to reactivate the traditional Khmer drainage system. We also discovered that the roof was crowned by a row of finials with dancing figures standing on lotus platforms, and were able to recover enough of the original ornaments from the surrounding area to recreate the design. In a few months, these carvings will be put in place. At APSARA’s request, WMF will also create a wooden coffered ceiling for the gallery, based on research into traditional Khmer designs. This will give visitors a sense of the proportions of the interior space and, for the first time, will enable them to gain a full experience of the beauty of the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery.”

The sculptural friezes, which line the galleries of Angkor Wat and depict Hindu legends associated with the god Vishnu, had been damaged by water infiltration. WMF began studies on the condition of the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery in the early 2000s, and in 2008 presented a formal project for its restoration. The massive undertaking involved dismantling the roofing system and reconstructing it in order to prevent future water damage. In the process, each stone was cleaned, and chemical deposits present in the stones were removed.

The disassembly, cleaning, and reassembly of the roofing system provided technical expertise and training for both WMF’s team of Cambodian conservators and for APSARA’s staff. The two groups worked side by side, with WMF funding matching APSARA’s in-kind support. WMF’s budget for the project was approximately $1.2 million.

Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery, Angkor Wat
The monumental bas-relief known as the Churning of the Sea of Milk adorns the east gallery of the magnificent Angkor Wat. A masterpiece of Khmer art commissioned by King Suryavarman II in the early twelfth century, the 49-meter-long relief recounts the creation myth, depicting devas (gods) and asuras (demons) joining forces in churning the primordial ocean, in order to release amrita, the elixir of immortality.

Beyond the threats of time and exposure to the elements, the gallery suffered from the effects of water and harmful salts penetrating through the roofing system of the galleries, and damaging the surface of the fragile friezes that cover the wall surfaces of the stately galleries that surround the temple of Angkor Wat. This conservation work has provided a prototype for repairing several kilometers of roofs that cover the other galleries. Through detailed examination, the WMF team discovered that the Khmer roof stones include an ingenious passive drainage system, giving rainwater many channels to drain from the building. This system has lost its functionality over time, but has now been restored in the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery.

The conservators used an innovative field-oriented GIS database to analyze and prioritize the active decay patterns. They conducted surveys and probes, along with in-situ and laboratory testing to identify the composition of the materials, treatments, and alterations over time. They documented the extent of subsurface decay, using non-destructive testing methods of evaluation, and designed a gantry crane that allows for non-destructive methods of disassembly and reassembly of the very large stone units that make up the gallery roof. They also established a detailed method of documentation that followed each stone from disassembly to conservation treatments to final reassembly.

The Angkor Archaeological Park, an immense Hindu-Buddhist temple complex, lies in the jungles of northwest Cambodia. The temples at Angkor represent the pinnacle of the Khmer civilization, which ruled most of the region between the ninth and fifteenth centuries A.D. They are considered to be among the great architectural wonders of the world. Following its peak in the twelfth century, Angkor began a long decline. By the end of the sixteenth century, only the temple of Angkor Wat was still in use. The jungle swallowed much of the ancient city, and its temples were relatively unknown to the western world until French archaeologists “rediscovered” the complex in the late 1850s. The first Western conservators at Angkor, the French made an effort throughout the next century to document and conserve portions of the temple complex, but they were forced to flee during the civil war in 1972. Many of Angkor's caretakers died under the Khmer Rouge, and Angkor went without maintenance for nearly 20 years.

In 1989, a WMF team arrived at Angkor to conduct one of the first international surveys of the damage wrought by decades of civil war and neglect, and, in 1991, WMF embarked on a comprehensive program of conservation and training at Preah Khan. Over time, this effort expanded to include the temples of Ta Som, Phnom Bakheng, and the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery at Angkor Wat, the famed temple that is now Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. For more than 20 years, WMF has been helping to conserve one of the most important monumental complexes in the world, training Cambodians in ongoing conservation and stewardship of their country’s heritage, assisting APSARA in building its management capacity, and enhancing visitors’ appreciation of the religious monuments.

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