THE discovery of funeral jars in southwest Cambodia, and the exhibition of three
of them at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, has fueled a campaign to declare the
Cardamom Mountain range a protected forest.
An ancient skull peers from a funerary jar dating back to the fall of the Angkor Empire around the 15th century.
The find of funerary vessels and other cultural artifacts dating back to the 14th
century has bolstered the case of environmental groups pushing for a Cardamom Conservation
Landscape preserve covering almost two million hectares. If approved it would be
the largest contiguous protected forest in Southeast Asia.
Before that happens, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries must approve
the deal, which includes at least three active logging concessions. The Ministry
of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA) wants to survey the sites to ensure their preservation.
UNESCO, the UN's preservation group, said it was assisting MoCFA with a grant from
the National Geographic Fund. The UN body said the best solution would be for the
sites to remain intact and protected.
"It's really very important because it fills in the image of Cambodian history
and cultural diversity," said Tamara Teneishvili, program specialist at UNESCO.
She speculated that ethnic minority people in the area could provide a living link
to the artifacts.
But the isolation that kept the jars safe for so long has also placed them in peril
from looters using logging roads that now divide the wilderness. The construction
of Route 48 on the fringe of the Cardamoms between Koh Kong and the highway to Phnom
Penh could bring more thieves to the region.
Although 12 sites were identified, 20 more might exist, said Siphoeun Somreth, a
MoCFA researcher who has studied the artifacts. The ministry does not have the resources
to monitor the sites properly.
"It's all protected by law, but we need force and money in the future,"
To date MoCFA has surveyed five sites and counted 77 jars. That was done during a
scientific expedition last month, which was filmed for an international documentary
to be released later this year.
Somreth said 20 of the jars had been vandalized or shattered, but more were probably
The sites, located on cliffs or beneath rock overhangs, are scattered throughout
southwestern Cambodia, a remote region characterized by deep valleys and dense forests.
Rows of coffins hewn from logs and ancient jars stuffed with skeletons line some
ledges. Researchers said they were the remnants of a lost period that included the
decline of the Khmer empire after the fall of Angkor to Siam.
On cliffs high in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia's southwest, funeral jars filled
with ancient remains are offering archeologists a tantalizing look at the rise and
fall of the Khmer empire.
The half-meter high vessels, which bear influences from China and Thailand, have
caused a sensation in archeological circles. Unique in their contents and state of
preservation, the ancient clay vessels, as well as several wooden coffins found at
the sites, are thought to date back to between the 14th and 16th centuries as the
Khmer empire crumbled under attack from its neighbors.
The artifacts received a passing mention in a French monograph 40 years ago, but
were then lost to science as Cambodia was engulfed in war. In 2001 local villagers
revealed the existence of a handful of sites to forest rangers from environmental
NGO Conservation International (CI).
The find has inspired a television documentary scheduled for release in August and
a renewed international effort to have the area declared a reserve. But after surviving
for centuries, there are fears the artifacts may not endure much longer.
Researchers say that sawmills and looters are tearing out the heart of the region.
Local villagers report that Khmer Rouge soldiers desecrated most of the accessible
sites during the early 1990s. Fortune hunters arriving in the tracks of logging trucks
helped themselves to more soon after.
Now the battle to save what remains is being waged under the banner of international
conservation. A consortium of environmental groups and government agencies say they
are committed to preserving the Cardamom Mountains and the vast tracts of forest
that hide the growing list of cultural treasures.
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry
and Fisheries, and four environmental NGOs have sketched out the borders of what
would be the largest contiguous protected area created here. If successful, the network
of parks and reserves will cover a massive swath of the southwest.
WildAid, an environmental NGO that patrols the region, says more than one million
hectares have been designated as protected forest in the region. It would like to
see that extended to include another half a million hectares.
But the isolation that has helped protect some of the Cardamom range also poses its
most intractable problem: How do you guard a region nearly half the size of Taiwan?
Not through coercion, says CI head David Mead, whose organization assists the Department
of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) in patrolling the region.
"It would be physically impossible for any force to protect [the sites],"
he says. "We would need an aircraft-carrier load of marines."
DFW and NGO-assisted ranger teams have about 150 people in the area, but only a fraction
of them are in the field at any one time. Mead stresses that consensus by stakeholders
will determine if the sites can be preserved.
A cliff ledge site in the Cardamoms with wooden coffins and shattered funerary jars.
"There have to be decisions taken to leave some there, remove some to a museum
and totally preserve some," says Mead. "It's not Angkor Wat."
Three jars have been already been airlifted to the National Museum in Phnom Penh
where they are on display. They will become part of the permanent collection.
Some bones and pottery fragments have been sent to scientists in Singapore for DNA
and radio-carbon testing. Although results have not been released, preliminary examination
shows the jars contain only female skeletons. The significance of that, and whether
that is the case for all the jars, is not clear.
The sites still conceal many secrets. The funerary vessels are unique to Cambodia,
although similar artifacts are known elsewhere in Asia. Other sites where jars were
discovered, such as Iron Age sites in Thailand, contain relics around 1,000 years
older. Most jars were buried, not exposed to the elements on mountain perches.
The reason they have survived for more than 600 years is credited to the rugged landscape
covered by dense evergreen forests and impenetrable bamboo stands.
Over the last thousand years this natural sanctuary attracted escaped slaves from
what was then Siam, Chinese merchants, deposed royalty, and ethnic minorities seeking
refuge. It is believed the sparsely inhabited region, which is still among the least
populated places in Southeast Asia, will offer archeologists a lost fragment of the
No one knows the precise number of sites remaining in the Cardamoms. An expedition
from MoCFA, which was filmed by the documentary team in March, surveyed five locations
this year. At least a dozen others were identified, and another 25 sites are rumored
to exist, says Siphoeun Somreth, a MoCFA researcher who first visited the sites as
a CI ranger in 2001.
"The world knows Cambodia has monuments," says Somreth, "but now they
know Cambodia has another side too."
Somreth says the ministry needs funding to ensure its ambition to survey and preserve
the sites is successful.
"We have a subdecree by Prime Minister Hun Sen to put the Cardamoms Range in
protected area by law," says Somreth. "But in fact, we have no people to
guard and we have no force to put at that site."
Somreth says it is clear that action is necessary. More than 20 of the 77 jars found
at the sites had been vandalized. Bones were strewn about on ledges, and several
jars had been shattered so looters could rifle through the contents.
But the hopes of most fortune-seekers prove illusory as the jars contain little if
anything of monetary value. Although beads and decorative objects have been found,
most of the vessels contain only the bleached, weathered bones of three or four skeletons.
But for archaeologists the sites are a treasure trove. The mystery behind the origin
and symbolism of the jars has only heightened their intrigue, says Hunter Weiler,
an advisor at the Cat Action Treasury, and one of the first outsiders to see the
"There needs to be a complete inventory," Weiler says. "It will take
several years, mountain by mountain, valley by valley, to explore and map the Cardamoms.
There are more out there."
Weiler says the superstition of local villagers, who believe that disturbing the
jars will incur the wrath of vengeful spirits, gives him hope that the sites will
He recounts a popular story about a rich Thai man from Koh Kong who ordered several
jars for a private collection. Within six months of the cursed cargo's delivery,
everyone involved in the operation had died.
"They are ghost jars," Weiler says. "To disturb the jars is to die."