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Digging up history

One of the skeletons, with small clay pot

"THE men of Funan are all ugly and black. Their hair is curly. They go naked

and barefoot." This, according to a less-than-impressed Chinese emissary of

the sixth century AD, was the overriding characteristic of the people of Funan, an

ancient civilization which spread across most of modern Cambodia and probably included

parts of southern Vietnam.

Very little is known about the mysterious kingdom; the only original texts that survive

are Chinese documents from the first to sixth centuries AD that offer tantalising

glimpses of a successful and advanced people.

The texts describe a nation with natural resources of gold, silver, pearls, coral

and ivory, a nation who had kings who rode elephants and who were "malicious

and cunning; they take by force the inhabitants of the neighbouring cities who do

not render them homage and make them slaves."

Now, researchers at the University of Hawaii and the Royal University of Fine Arts

Archaeology department are hoping to shed more detailed light on the civilization,

with a long term project to excavate Angkor Borei in Takeo province, thought by many

experts to have been the capital of Funan.

"Not only is the site associated with the earliest truly Khmer sculptural tradition,"

says Dr Miriam Stark, Co-Director of the project, "but it has the earliest dated

Khmer inscription in the world."

Similar sites in Vietnam's Mekong Delta have fuelled theories that this area was

once Khmer also, but the team at Angkor Borei are more cautious.

"[We] are unwilling to attribute ethnic identity to sites and time periods that

predate a literary tradition," says Dr Stark.

So far, the project, which was set up by the East West Center in Hawaii, has unearthed

a city wall, probably designed to stop flooding, foundations of several brick monuments

and buildings, including temples, and perhaps the most important find yet - a skeleton-filled

mound, which Dr Stark says she is sure is an ancient burial site.

Over the last six weeks, archaeologists unearthed human bones thought to date from

the beginning of the millenium, but, says Dr Stark, certainly no older than 100 AD.

Work begins to excavate the burial mound next to Wat Kumnou

The skeletons were found alongside small pots and pig heads, in what seems to be

some sort of burial rite.

"We get pig heads in Bronze Age sites [1,000-2,000 BC], though rarely the sheer

number of pig heads that we've seen in our 1999 excavations," she says.

Angkor Borei's importance was noted by French explorers of the early 20th century.

Paul Pelliot, a French sinologist, collected and reviewed all known references to

Funan in 1903, but despite various attempts to record details of sites in Cambodia,

no detailed excav-ations have been done until now.

"Cambodia has scads of archaeologial sites," says Dr Stark, "but few

that have ever been subjected to systematic archaeological research. And the Angkor

Borei cemetery is the first cemetery of interred bodies that has ever been excavated

in the country using modern techniques. This is the first opportunity for us to scientifically

examine an ancient skeletal population from Cambodia."

For some of the Khmers working on the project, the importance of the site has a more

emotive ring to it.

"This is the cradle of Cambodian civilization," says research assistant

Bong Sovath, proudly. "From this civilization we see the birth of other areas

like Angkor."

Sovath added that he was also excited by the fact that there were no other significant

archaeological sites in Southeast Asia that date from the Funan period, meaning that

the work done in Angkor Borei will be of international as well as national importance.

Work has stopped at the site for the moment, with the next phase of the project expected

to begin next year, once more research on the unearthed objects has been completed.

Dr Stark admits that she has concerns about preserving and protecting the site, particularly

bearing in mind that many villagers still live in the area of Angkor Borei - including

some who have already shown a little entreprenuerial spirit.

Peang Lim, who owns the land where the burial mound was discovered, said she had

been selling pots that she had gathered from the site. "We already sold 28 and

got 500,000 riel," she said.

She said she had been planning to build her house on the site of the burial mound

when the skeletons were discovered.

"I'm not afraid of ghosts," she laughs. She then points out a small piece

of carved tooth or bone, which she says she found at the site with a small hole already

made in the top, as if it had been used as a bead or pendant. It now sits on a chain

around her baby's neck.

Angkor Borei as it is today

Dr Stark says she is not surprised, but is most concerned at the looting and sales

of the artifacts.

"Large portions of the site have already been destroyed through illicit excavations

in the last five years, and we know that sculptures, pottery and beads from Angkor

Borei regularly enter the antiquities market," she says.

"We hope that in the long run we can convince Khmers that Angkor Borei is important

to their heritage, and that tourism to the site might also help the local economy."

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