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
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 torso section is one of two the expedition discovered on
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
They began in Siem Reap and then traveled the ancient road used
during the height of the Angkor civilization.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,"
"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!"
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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."