The temples at Angkor have inspired artists, adventurers, poets and archaeologists for centuries, but very little is known about Cambodia’s rich prehistoric past.
If not for one team of researchers who rescued a collection of buried treasures from destruction and have exhibited some of the results in Phnom Penh, we would know even less.
A new exhibition at the National Museum offers a glimpse into life during the country’s Iron Age, hundreds of years before the Khmer empire began its rule at Angkor in the early 800s.
"Origins of Empire. Cambodia’s Prehistoric Past: Archaeological Remains" from Phum Sophy, which opened last Tuesday and runs until September, showcases human remains, burial offerings and weapons dating back to AD 300, unearthed by excavations in Banteay Meanchey province.
The prehistoric Phum Sophy site was on the verge of being destroyed when work began in 2009, after years of heavy looting by the local population as well as ill-conceived construction, according to Dr Dougald O’Reilly, an archaeologist from the Australian National University.
“The finds at Sophy are significant as very little is known of prehistoric contexts in Cambodia, so everything we discover adds a little bit to the puzzle,” said the researcher, who led the excavations.
O’Reilly, who is also the founder of the NGO Heritage Watch, was part of a team that worked on two excavations in 2009 and 2010 that lasted for three months. They found at least 80 per cent of the site had already been destroyed by looters.
Burial sites were uncovered during the building of toilets by an NGO, after which villagers pillaged the site, leading to the “near total destruction of the prehistoric context”, O’Reilly said.
“This came to my attention through Heritage Watch, and we targeted the site for research purposes as it was known to have a large mortuary assemblage,” he added.
“We had hoped to excavate a large area and retrieve a sizeable sample of burials, but the site was so thoroughly looted by the local population that we were able only to find small areas that were undisturbed.”
Some 14 human burials were found, of which two are on display in a side room of the museum alongside valuable items found beside the bones: glass and stone beads, metal artefacts, bronze jewellery and animal tooth pendants.
One of the most surprising results of the analysis was that both men and women practised dental ablation, where the secondary incisors were removed. Some had sharpened their teeth to a point.
“Theories suggest that this may be a cultural marker to delineate different tribes, or alternatively a rite of passage or related to status,” said Dr Louise Shewan, a researcher from Monash University who was the project’s chemical analysis expert.
Remains of teeth also revealed differences between the diets of men and women, possibly suggesting a division of labour along gender lines, she said.
The people ate a rice-based diet and exploited a wide range of ecosystems including forests, marshlands, rivers and fields. Their bones indicated they lived a relatively healthy lifestyle, Shewan added.
A total of 16 pots, believed to have been crafted from clay by the locals, were found in tiny fragments before being cleaned and reconstructed by members of the Ceramic Conservation Lab at the Royal University of Fine Art, Cambodia, headed by Tep Sokha.
“The pots can tell us about the society,” the ceramics expert said. “These were rich people – beside the pots, we found glass beads and metal artefacts.”
But still more stolen and destroyed artifacts from the site will never be found, Sokha added. “All of those artifacts are gone. This is a part of the culture that was lost and will never come back.”