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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Putting the media spotlight on Khmer cultural treasures

Putting the media spotlight on Khmer cultural treasures

In Jayavarman's realm an intrepid set of modern-day explorers sets out to

document neglected jungle ruins, and believe they may have found one of

Cambodia's long-lost artistic treasures. Frédéric Amat reports.

Agroup of archaeologists re-tracing the Royal Road from Siem Reap to Preah

Vihear believe they may have discovered the torso section of a statue of

Jayavarman VII, the head of which is currently in the National

Museum.

French expert (and now balloonist!) Claude Jacques (right) seems to be enjoying the ride and the view.

The bust of Angkor Thom and the Bayon's builder has been used as

a motif for Cambodia and there has been little hope of recovering the rest of

the statue.

The torso section is one of two the expedition discovered on

their travels.

The archeologists and an accompanying TV documentary crew

have kept the exact location of their finds secret until the statues can be

recovered, for fear of looters. But they said both statues are situated at an

isolated temple complex.

The archeologists who made the discovery are

some of the most preeminent specialists in the field and included Ashley

Thompson, an adviser for APSARA, Claude Jacques, a French expert on ancient

Khmer inscriptions and special adviser for Cambodia to UNESCO's General

Secretary, and Christophe Pottier, architect at the Ecole Francaise d'Extrème

Orient.

They began in Siem Reap and then traveled the ancient road used

during the height of the Angkor civilization.

Pierre Stine,

director-cameraman for Gedeon Productions, a French film group in charge of the

co-production documentary of the trip, said it took them almost two and a half

days to make their way through the rough of the Cambodian jungle.

"Our

expedition took place in inconceivable conditions," he said.

local residents and tourists alike were captivated by the sight of an unfamiliar silhouette on the morning skyline over the ancient ruins.

"We lived

through some thrills and frights traveling through the jungle that now has

regained its rights over the Royal Route, whose only proven remnants are

thousand-year-old bridges, some of them incredibly well preserved.

"But

in the end, it was well worth the trouble. Our aim is to tell a story: the story

of an expedition, traveling through places, territories and peoples, but keeping

in mind the main subject - the looting of isolated or unknown temples, basically

the temples that are not seen by the tourists."

The first torso was

discovered right upon the arrival of the team. It had just recently been dug out

by a local temple guard who discovered it during millennium celebrations there,

and was kept near a police post beside the temple.

The piece is fairly

complete: it has the legs, bust, arms and hands intact. If it is proved to be a

statue of Jayavarman VII, it would be one of the only proofs that Jayavarman VII

was in a position of meditation and not one of adoration.

This piece

would therefore put an end to this long-debated question amongst archeologists.

The body closely resembles that of Jayavarman VII as he is revealed in all the

other statues of him in this position.

Its head has been distinctively

cut diagonally from the throat down to the middle-back. The cut is seemingly

quite old so it is unlikely that this piece was destined for today's growing

antiques trafficking rings.

The discovery of the second torso is more of

a lucky find. It took place only minutes before the expedition

departed.

Although it is only the bust of the statue, according to the

researchers it seems to fit exactly the head of Jayavarman VII that is currently

in the National Museum of Phnom Penh. Its head was saved - also with a lot of

luck - by archeologists in 1958 from the same temple. It was simply sitting on a

ledge when it was found at the time, probably to be transported and sold within

the next hours or days.

In this most recent case the presence of the

team, who immediately notified the local authorities about the two finds, might

have helped to stop the looting of these pieces from happening, simply by

increasing the statue's visibility.

This is precisely the goal of Claude

Jacques, scientific adviser in the documentary, who wants to give a new life to

all the remaining traces of the ancient Angkorian civilization, and in

particular to the temples which receive little or no attention at all.

"I

noticed the looting in Banteay Chmar last year. I then told myself that we must

make all the temples outside of the Angkor complex more accessible to visitors,"

he said.

"It must be said to the world that the Angkor complex is only a

fraction of what is in Cambodia. There is so much to see!"

"The Preah

Khan in Preah Vihear, Banteay Chmar, but also Sambor Prey Kuk, Koh Ker, Beang

Melea, the Kulen, the Kampot caves or even the Phnom Chisor, all these monuments

are small wonders, but simply because they are a little out of the way, they

become the silent victims of looters.

"As it is often illiterate people

doing the dirty job of cutting down the stones, not only do they loot but they

also end up destroying the whole of the temples for ever.

"For a simple

piece sold on the market, they can destroy up to five others, and that is

unbearable. Tourism is one of the ways to stop the looting of the temples. The

people who live in the vicinity will protect the sites, if they feel they have

an interest in it. Protecting the temples and not destroying them will help them

get an income," explains the researcher, who once also was the "conservateur" of

the museum in Phnom Penh during the 1960s.

For a long time, the finger

has been pointed at Thailand as a platform for the sales of antiques from

Cambodia. Clearly Bangkok, and in particular the neighborhood of River city, is

famous for its supply of ancient pieces. Nevertheless, Claude Jacques downplays

such wide-ranging accusations.

"I regularly visit this neighborhood in

Bangkok where one can find old Khmer pieces.

"Late in 1998, I found an

old inscription that I had once previously translated in Banteay Chmar," he

says.

"The salesman who nevertheless asked US $6,900 for it tried to

convince me that it was a fake.

"Soon after, I met up with the Director

of the Fine Arts department in Bangkok who immediately saved the piece - and

other ones as well - and placed it in the National Museum in Bangkok, in wait of

a handing back to the Cambodian authorities."

Claude Jacques feels that

at least, both in Cambodia and in Thailand, there is a growing consciousness and

that has led to an improvement in the fight against such traffic and the looting

of the temple pieces.

To prove his point, the researcher provides

specific examples: "Between 1989 and 1998, the Thais had seized 30 pieces coming

from the Khmer temples. Only in 1999, they seized over 1,000 pieces! That goes

to show that there is an increase in the processes and that things may be going

in the right direction."

On the other hand, the archeologist notes that

if Bangkok is less of a trafficking platform, Singapore now seems to be taking

on the role.

"I am convinced that most of the trafficking now goes

through Singapore. The pieces reach Poipet and go directly from there to

Singapore."

If it is not easy to stop the trafficking or even to slow it

down, the recent expedition may serve to highlight some of the different

possibilities available to protect the most isolated temples.

The

52-minute documentary, filmed with impressive cinematographic tools (such as the

cinébulle - a hot-air balloon specially designed for close up aerial

photography) should be broadcast this year in many countries and will also be

supported by a special GEO (French) magazine of 40 pages.

These

productions will at least undoubtedly give many other people the idea of

visiting these temples. So far, one of the biggest obstacles to accessing the

temples remains the bad roads and the lack of tourist facilities.

As

Claude Jacques continues to detail the activities of UNESCO directed at

protecting Angkor's temples, already listed as monuments of the world heritage

list, he also adds that UNESCO merely has a moral power over the temples and

concludes: "The temples belong to the Khmers. First and foremost, it is up to

the Khmers to make their mark."

 

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