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Maybe it’s because I grew up watching the Indiana Jones films, but for me, nothing beats a good ol’ fashioned unexplained ancient lost city mystery.

The Cambodia Daily has reported that a team of international archaeologists have begun studying a mysterious ancient staircase in the Phnom Kulen mountain range north of Angkor Wat. The mountain has been eyed for addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and is considered sacred in the Buddhist tradition, containing several shrines and Buddha statues.

Ruins of long-lost structures dot the hills surrounding the staircase.

The 550-meter staircase in question has been carved out of the red rock of the mountain itself. The stairs have been interspersed with several flat areas believed to have been designed as rest areas with water sources. Archaeologists have yet to determine a precise date for its construction, and historical accounts vary. For centuries, local villagers have been passing down various legends and anecdotes about their ancestors’ use of the staircase. None of these, however, helps unravel the mystery of who made the staircase or for what purpose.

Archaeologists interviewing a local villager about the staircase.

One thing is certain, though: the staircase took a tremendous amount of coordination and labor. According to archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance, this implies social organization likely stemming from an unknown ancient ruler:

If you deploy so much labor to build such a feature, it’s coming from the top. It’s not just some local rich guy who built it. The problem is to know when it was built, because there are no carvings, no other remains.

A leading theory is that the staircase provided access to the ancient city of Mahendraparvata, a Khmer Empire stronghold dating back to the ninth century. Aerial radar has recently revealed that the lost city is much more extensive than previously thought and shows remarkable levels of urban planning and sophistication.

Ground-penetrating radar has shown that Mahendraparvata rivals Angkor Wat in its sophistication.

Archaeologists hope that the recent discoveries surrounding the staircase might speed up protection efforts; logging operations have been damaging the site in recent years. Locals, however, hope the staircase will soon become a lucrative tourist attraction.