More than 10 years after ancient jars were discovered deep in the Cardamom mountains, more of the relics, believed to be used for burial, are still emerging.
“There are stories of many jar sites now,” said archaeologist Nancy Beavan, days after returning from the latest, an unusual series found perched on rock ledges in the Koh Kong forest.
Eleven sites have been documented so far, and each new discovery leads archaeologists to delve deeper into the question of where the jars came from, what they were used for and why.
The latest site, known as Cedi, was discovered after Hang Bunthean, a local villager, went into the forest to collect resin from trees and stumbled upon a towering stupa-like stone, at an elevation of more than 300 metres, with two ridges on which were balanced two sets of jars.
He informed the authorities and, early this month, Beavan and her team of nine spent more than a week at the site.
They photographed, repaired broken jars and geo-located the area, about a two-hour motorbike ride from Chi Phat.
“We’ve never had a site like that before,” said Beavan, speaking in Phnom Penh.
“Usually it’s the sheer side of sandstone ridge, and there are fissures in the rock, natural rock ledges. This was a standalone natural stone tower. It was amazing.”
Inside were storage jars believed to have been made in Thai kilns, including three which contained human bones.
Many were badly weathered and some of them showed signs of looting. It’s the first evidence of human interference with any of the sites, according to ceramics expert Tep Sokha, who works on the jars with Beavan.
“Most of jars on the rock ledge were broken, so we reconstructed them and placed them in the same position,” he added.
Usually when the team find jars in poor condition, there are at least a few flakes of bone, to indicate there was once something more substantial inside, like a body or two.
But this time, one jar contained only an assortment of loose teeth.
“I don’t know, just a bunch of teeth in one jar – that was creepy!” said Beavan, laughing.
“Not even a jaw bone left? Not quite sure. Not quite sure about that.”
There were other unusual discoveries.
In every other site but one, which Beavan believes may not have been used for burial, there have been wooden coffins, none of which were found at Cedi.
While it’s too early to make any concrete conclusions, Beavan believes this could indicate changing patterns of behaviour in the people who lived in the Cardamom mountains at around the time of the decline of the Angkorian civilisation in the north of the country.
“There is a question of, ‘did they first use coffins and then switch to jars, or do both types of burial practices overlap?’”
“I’m very interested to see what the age of this particular site is.”
The other finding is that the new site fits directly into a line of jar burials spread through the Cardamoms, on higher and lower ground.
The idea is that the people who lived there may have hunted in the forest but also had seasonal settlements on lower ridges, said Beavan.
“You would plant tuberous vegetables or highland dry rice, and so for the season that you’re growing that, you remain in this place, but in another season you move into hunting and gathering in the forest,” she said.
Many questions remain, Beavan said. She will return to Cedi in the autumn.
In the meantime, she will mull over the new findings, all recorded in a lined notebook in neat blue and black script, and hope for a ‘eureka!’ moment.
“When we experience these oddities compared to other sites, you can’t make an immediate judgement,” she said.
“You just make copious notes, and then, about three months after, in the middle of the night you wake up and go ‘Oh my god’.”