A few weeks ago, following a post on different approaches to pseudoarchaeology, I was contacted on Twitter by Christopher Golding, who asked what approach I would recommend to fellow archaeologists for working with “members of the public who believe they might have discovered something interesting”. I replied that “we should do archaeology with them. That is, look at the evidence and evaluate it together, then communicate the results”. He said he would send me his material.
In the spirit of practicing what I preach, and with his permission, I post below my evaluation of his hypothesis and proposed evidence, followed by the material he sent me. I made a minor revision to my text after he commented on my first draft.
Thank you very much for sending me the details of your hypothesis. I am of course not an expert in that particular area, but here are my initial thoughts.
You have one main hypothesis, that the Vara of Yima, a mythological structure described in the Avesta was based on real world observation of Angkor Wat. You have a few subsidiary hypotheses, namely 1) that the description of the Vara contained in the Avesta is no older than the oldest known manuscripts and therefore no older than Ankor Wat, 2) that there was at least contact between the authors of those earliest manuscripts and people who had seen Ankor Wat, and 3) that Yima’s kneading the earth apart, which is involved in the construction of the Vara, is a reference to making mud bricks.
You support your main hypothesis by showing that it is at least possible (i.e. if we accept that the Avesta description of the Vara is found in manuscripts contemporary with or younger than Angkor Wat) and by noting that the Vara and Angkor Wat share some morphological traits. None of this can prove your hypothesis, but it certainly doesn’t refute it.
Possible, but (for now) not probable
At first glance, I would say your hypothesis falls within the realm of possibility (i.e. I can’t think of information that directly refutes it). It is absolutely possible that the Avesta description of the Vara is based on real-world observations of Angkor Wat. While your supporting evidence shows that it is possible, I think it falls short of making it likely.
The main obstacles are 1) the distance between Iran and Angkor Wat, and 2) the absence of material evidence of close, sustained contact during the period in question. These two obstacles certainly don’t come close to ruling out your hypothesis, but they reduce my estimate of its probability.
There are alternative hypotheses that are just as possible as yours, and which I consider more likely. For example, it isn’t surprising that a description of a mythical architectural marvel has a lot in common with an actual architectural marvel from the same time period. Gotham has a lot in common with New York and Chicago of the mid-20th Century. I consider that, given the available evidence at this moment, this kind of structural similarity is a simpler explanation than direct contact between the authors of the Avesta manuscript and Angkor Wat. However, it is intriguing that both are described as having the same size and shape.
I would also give higher probability to a softer version of your hypothesis in which descriptions of Angkor Wat are disseminated and modified through a wide and diffuse communication network, and influence the description of the Vara more or less directly. This would not be surprising, but again, evidence is lacking, for or against.
Going from possible to probable
Since we can’t observe the past directly, there are only two things we can do with hypotheses in archaeology: We can reject them with a find that should not exist if the hypothesis is true, and we can vary our level of confidence in them. Ultimately, we can never prove that something happened in the past the way we think it did. We can prove that it didn’t, or we can get pretty certain that it did, pending additional evidence that refutes it.
There are a few classes of evidence that would help make your hypothesis more probable: Textual evidence which describes or necessitates a link between Angkor Wat and the Avesta, or material remains that indicate direct, sustained contact. In the absence of those, you have a hypothesis that is in the realm of possibility, but which has low probability of being true.
Original Email from Christopher Golding:
The information about the Vara of Yima that is in the Avesta(1) was based on real structures that are still in existence today. Those structures are Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. I am in no way saying that I believe that Angkor Thom is the original Vara of Yima. I believe that the author of the text used the already existing structures as a template because the original information describing the Vara was lost.
The text from Avesta.org gives the size and shape of the enclosure as being square with each side approximately 2 miles in length(1).
The city of Angkor Thom consists of a square enclosure with each side measuring 1.9 miles in length, which is approximately 2 miles.
The text from Avesta.org gives the size of a bed of water that a “house” is built on as one hathra in length(1).
Angkor Wat has been described as being like a ship floating on a bed of subterranean water(2). The length of Angkor Wat’s moat, not the circumference, is approximately 1 mile, meaning that if you were to take away the central island it would be a bed of water 1 hathra long. Angkor Wat also has balconies, courtyards, and galleries which are also mentioned in the text.
It is noted that the length of a hathra is disputed(4) however it is still the case that the measurements given in Avesta.org for the Vara match the measurements of the Angkor Thom’s walls and the bed of water that the central island of Angkor Wat sits on.
Although the Zoroastrian religion itself is much older, the oldest surviving text of the Avesta (K 7a) comes from 1288(3). Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom both date from the 12th century. Therefore it is possible, as most of the Avestan texts had been lost by then, that the authors of that text decided to use the structures of Angkor as a template for their description of the Vara. As some Khmer claim that they are descended from Cyrus the great(5), who was a Zoroastrian, the structures themselves may have even been built by Zoroastrians or people that have Zoroastrian ancestors.
Cambodia was known as Kambujadesa. There was an Iranian speaking tribe called the Kamboja(5) and it is possible that they arrived in the area and called it Kambujadesa which means land of the Kambuja. Early French maps of the region write the name of the country as Kamboja.
The mainstream idea of the Vara is that it was a mythical underground structure that never actually existed. This is shown in the quotes below. Therefore Angkor can not possibly represent the Vara as it is on the surface.
“For a comparison of the underground enclosure of Yima with the the Indic/Sanskrit Yama as ruler of the underground, see Bruce Lincoln Death, War, and Sacrifice (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 28). Also see Mary Boyce, History of Zoroastrianism I (Leiden, Brill, 1975 second impression with corrections, pp. 92 ff.)”(1)
“According to Skjaervø’s translation, the underground nature of the vara is implicit in Vd. 2.22-23, which states that a bad winter will come upon the world of the living, and everything above ground – high and low, and in the rivers – will perish. Yima is told to tread and knead the earth ‘apart’ with his heel and hands respectively.”(6)
However, there are also references to the Vara being a walled enclosure.
“The term vara (Pahlavi war) has been thought to refer to some kind of enclosure (related to English wall from Latin vallum), or, more precisely, a cavern (Geldner, 1926, p. 30, cited by Hauschild, p. 25 n. 40; Gershevitch, 1974, pp. 66-69; Kellens, 1999-2000, p. 732). It is the same word as Old Indic valá, which Indra breaks or splits open to free the imprisoned cows. According to Johannes Hertel, the term refers to the celestial vault; see Keith’s critique (pp. 621-23).”(7)
My first interpretation of the Vara was that it was an enclosure built on the surface and not an underground structure. This is because if it had its origins as a real structure then building it underground would not be practical as flood water would quickly fill up the Vara. Whereas a walled fortress on the surface could protect people not just from the flood but from invasion as well, especially if it was built on high ground.
I was looking for the part in the text where it explicitly said the Vara was build underground but I could not find any reference in the text itself that said the Vara was built underground. There is mention of underground abodes but these are already in existence before the warning about the “evil winters” come and Yima builds the Vara after the warning. If the underground abodes already in existence are not safe it is unlikely that building another one will be the wisest choice. The underground nature of the Vara only comes from interpretations of the text.
The passage that is interpreted as implying that the Vara is underground is when Yima is told how to build the Vara by Ahura Mazda.
“31. Then Yima said within himself: ‘How shall I manage to make that Vara which Ahura Mazda has commanded me to make?’ And Ahura Mazda said unto Yima: ‘O fair Yima, son of Vivanghat! Crush the earth with a stamp of thy heel, and then knead it with thy hands, as the potter does when kneading the potter’s clay.’”(1)
“Yima is told to tread and knead the earth ‘apart’ with his heel and hands respectively”(4)
When I read those passages from the point of view of the Vara being a real historic structure I immediately thought that this could be a description of how to create mud bricks. I knew that the ancient civilisations of used mud bricks to create walls and large structures such as ziggurats.
This would also make sense when considering the geographical location of where the Zoroastrian religion began and the construction techniques employed in that region at that time. I think that a description of making mud bricks is more plausible because we know that mud bricks are not mythical.
Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania, Barbara A. West, pages 359-60
Reply to me from Dr Jennifer Rose
One thought on “Comment on Christopher Golding’s hypothesis that the Avesta’s Vara of Yima is a description of Angkor Wat”
I have several questions.
How can we determine the ‘age’ of a story from the writing. Even the first writing? Wern’t stories carried orally for indeterminant amounts of time? How can we pin down a time if that is the case?
In the Myth the sides of the Vara are said to be a riding-ground in length. How do we know that is 2 hathra?
Doesn’t the myth itself describe what is happening? It’s pretty obvious to me.