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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rush for gold imperils ancient artefacts

Rush for gold imperils ancient artefacts

Three mystery objects said to have been found in the hot spring mud at Kompong Speu

A

patch of rural hinterland off Route 4 in Kampong Speu has been thronged with treasure

seekers after reports of buried gold and Angkorian artefacts around a unique hot

water spring.

The word about the 'golden spring' located outside Aural District's Kor Daun Tei

village approximately 110 kilometers west of Phnom Penh spread to neighboring villages

two weeks ago after locals found pieces of gold jewelry and metallic artefacts that

could be of immense archaeological importance.

The finds sparked a gold rush of truckloads of curious men, women and children from

the neighboring villages descending on the site to try their luck in searching for

the buried treasure.

A military police guard posted at the spot told the Post that about 300 people had

come to dig around the site over a four-day period before the government intervened.

A "No Digging" sign was hastily put up by the district administration and

six guards were posted to protect the site from destructive digging and theft.

"The digging was being done so indiscriminately that the crystal clear waters

of the hot spring have become black and muddy," the guard said.

The scale of theft from the site prior to the posting of guards is difficult to measure.

While the Post was permitted to view and photograph miniature metallic artifacts

allegedly found on the site, the villagers refused to display gold items like rings

and anklets that they claimed to have unearthed after digging just a few inches of

the upper soil using bare hands and sticks.

The three artefacts photographed by the Post consist of a metallic lingam, a flat

spearhead-like object and a solid urn-shaped seal.

Archaeological experts at the Phnom Penh office of UNESCO believe the items are highly

symbolic religious motifs.

UNESCO's Standing Secretariat and archeologist Tamara Teneishvili speculates that

the hot spring site may have been part of a still-undiscovered ancient burial mound.

"It is quite likely that the bones could not remain preserved in the warmth

and wetness [around the hot spring],'' Teneishvili said, lamenting that such little-known

pieces of Cambodia's cultural heritage were disappearing without even being recorded

or catalogued.

Director of the Ministry of Culture's Department of Cultural Heritage, Oung Von,

told the Post that he was unaware of the discovery of artefacts around the hot spring.

According to Von, his department had received no previous reports of artifact discoveries

in the area and that he planned to dispatch an investigation team to the site.

Meanwhile, the spring itself, located amidst wilderness with hills forming its backdrop,

is generating considerable interest among residents of outlying villages and even

Phnom Penh.

Long the site of annual religious ceremonies by members of the local Suoy indigenous

group, the spring has also been a destination for those seeking to bathe in its waters

to rid themselves of skin diseases.

Ieu Nang, 35, said people were continuing to ask the guards for permission to bathe

in the spring water. Around the main spout, however, the water is hot enough to scald

the skin.

"When I put eggs into the water, it takes only 17 minutes to boil them. The

villagers hold a ceremony here every year. They cook rice, duck, chicken and have

wine. If they get sick, they come here for treatment," she said..

Digging continues at the site under the eyes of guards.

In the wake of a rush for bathing in its dark, muddy waters, a Japanese road construction

company, Maeda Corporation, which was until recently working in the vicinity, has

built two wooden basins around the spring and channeled its hot water into them for

its use by the villagers.

Elderly villagers in the adjacent Chh In commune believe that the site is awash in

valuables buried just beneath the top soil which can be unearthed with relative ease.

The surge of interest and excitement in the spring and its booty has fueled a local

mythology industry explaining everything from the origin of the spring and its artifacts

to justification for stealing them.

Oudong native Ieu Nang, 50, claimed that she had dreamt of the spring and many people

digging around it for gold.

"In my dream, I heard 'Why don't you go there to get 3 or 4 damleung of gold?

But be cautious, if you get valuables more than these, you will die,'" she said.

The woman claims she in fact did find four damleung of gold in various small jewelry

items.

Saing Rin, 60, an Aural District farmer, said she dared not join the treasure hunt

because of fears of revenge from beyond the grave by the spring's original owner,

a nobleman named "Rama".

"He was very stingy. I'm afraid his spirit will get angry and something might

happen to my village if I take those valuable things away," Rin said of "Rama",

adding that when the children got sick, the parents took them to the spring and sacrificed

a buffalo there to ward off the disease.

Samrith Sorn, 30, Deputy Commander of the Military Police of Aural district now entrusted

with the task of protecting the area, said the District Chief Chem Sarin dispatched

him to the area after hearing about the indiscriminate digging.

According to Sorn, recent road construction in the area had led to speculation that

that the hot spring had been targeted for development as a tourist destination.

"But I am not sure which company will develop the site and when," he said

of the development plans.

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