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Art older than Angkor finding its way to Thailand

LAST March a back-hoe scooping up dirt for road-fill in Angkor Borei uncovered two

three-quater life-size statues of Vishnu.

The two statues have now joined nearly fifty other art works from Angkor Borei at

the National Museum, but it appears that more and more of Angkor Borei's antiquities

are finding their way to the art merchants of Thailand rather than to the National

Museum.

Almost fifty separate works of Funan civilization art have been recovered from Angkor

Borei.

Most, like the Vishnu statues, are stored in the basement of the Museum, but at least

five of the art works can be found in upper, public display areas of the museum.

Additionally, a frieze of stucco heads from Angkor Borei will be part of a traveling

display of art from Cambodia which will visit Paris, France, Washington, D.C. in

the US and Tokyo and Osaka in Japan.

Dr. Nancy H. Dowling, an art historian from the University of Hawaii at Manoa is

particularly excited about the dating project at Angkor Borei because it is likely

to provide a "fat, firm date" for the Vishnu statutes.

She says that up to now, dating for these statues and other Funan art work in the

National Museum has been based on stylistic differences.

The Carbon-14 dating, to be accomplished in the next eight months, and based on soil

and bricks recovered from the temple, will provide a necessary "grounding"

for dating the sequence of Funan art-work recovered so far.

But attempts to learn about Cambodia's past, like the archeological research at Angkor

Borei, and attempts to preserve Cam-bodia's pre-Angkor art heritage is competing

with infrastructure development and with looters.

The back-hoe that uncovered the Vishnu statues indicates a danger to Cambodia's historical

and art heritage in Angkor Borei that remains unabated today.

Five meters from one of this year's main archeological digs, soil had recently been

scooped from a dirt bank for road construction.

But there is another, worse danger to Cambodia's art heritage: looting.

Angkor Borei has been the focus of a rampage of pillaging in the recent past, in

the "last three years," according to members of the team.

"The scale of looting [at Angkor Borei] is great; huge excavation holes are

found throughout the present city."

Ten temples have been discovered in Angkor Borei, according to Dr. Miriam Stark.

They all "probably date from the first centuries A.D." All have been damaged.

In one case the entire upper structure of the temple "is gone, recently looted."

"Diggers looking for treasure have dug deeply into the central areas of the

temples, sometimes as much as seven meters, in order to recover offerings made at

the time of the temples' dedications."

Dr. Dowling says that she has seen items on sale in local markets that are clearly

from Angkor Borei, items a thousand or more years old, mixed with clear fakes.

She explained that in the past, antiquities found on farmers' land would have been

turned in to the wats for safe keeping, and from there perhaps have found their way

to the Museum. "But today, there is a large market for these items.

Many are finding their way to antiquities merchants in Thailand."

The research team emphasizes that looters are hurting Cambodia in two ways. Not only

are Cambodia's "statues, temple structures and other artifacts" being lost

to "foreign art dealers," but Angkor Borei's potential as a future tourist

destination is being damaged.

"Angkor Borei has the potential to not only provide information about the origins

of the Cambodian people, but to [generate] regular income from visitors," according

to a statement released by the team.

In spite of the looting, exciting acheological finds are being made. A large rectangular

schist slab was recovered from the same temple as the two statues of Vishnu.

Dr. Chuch Phoeurn says that the script on the slab appears to be from the early fifth

century, and that it belongs to the same Funan period as the statues.

"But looting remains a huge threat to the site," Dr. Dowling said.

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