The sandstone temple Angkor Wat, located in Cambodia, ranks as one of the world's largest religious structures and among Southeast Asia's most significant archaeological sites, according to UNESCO. Built during the 12th-century reign of the Khmer Empire's Suryavarman II, the temple originally honored the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor Wat is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Angkor Wat's foundation is made of laterite, a red, porous soil that has a high iron content. Laterite is found in hot and wet tropical environments such as Southeast Asia. At Angkor Wat, builders dug up the laterite and formed it into blocks or bricks, which dried when exposed to air. They also used laterite in building the temple's outer walls.
Sandstone is the main building material for Angkor Wat's walls and towers. Researchers from Japan's Waseda University identified three types of sandstone based on color, texture, chemical composition and mineral content. The researchers found gray to yellow-brown sandstone, red sandstone and green graywacke, a hard sandstone. Water, weathering, bat droppings, trees, algae and lichens have damaged the stones.
Beginning around 1113, slaves, masons, sculptors and other laborers spent 37 years erecting Angkor Wat. Workers cut sandstone from a nearby quarry, floated the blocks down the Siem Reap River and then dragged them ashore with ropes, rollers and winches. Workers smoothed the sandstone blocks and fitted them in place, sometimes using bronze clamps. In some areas of Angkor Wat, the stones are fitted so precisely that workers did not need mortar or fastenings.
Other materials used to build and decorate the temple have disappeared. Some of the temple's stone sculptures were decorated with gold and precious stones. Gold also coated towers and rooftops. The furnishings included carpets, silk hangings, bronze weapons and Chinese pottery and ceramics. The stones that remain are covered with carvings and bas-reliefs. The subjects include gods, humans, animals, battles and female spirits known as apsaras.
Angkor Wat is a huge rectangular building that measures about 4,920 feet by 4,260 feet. A moat about 820 feet wide surrounds the temple. The temple originally formed part of the kingdom's administrative and religious center. Most of those other buildings were built of wood with terracotta roofs and did not survive the centuries. Stone was a special material, used only for temples and other sacred monuments.