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Tomb raiders strip cemetery

A leading heritage NGO has warned that looters have nearly stripped bare one of

the country's most important ancient burial sites.

A report from the

United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (Unesco) said that

90 percent of the site at Phum Snay village in the country's north-west has been

looted, and the remaining 10 percent will be gone soon unless immediate action

is taken.

"This site is imperiled very seriously and soon there will be

nothing left. I would estimate that nearly 80-90 percent of the site has already

been lost with no end in sight," Canadian archaeologist, Dr Dougald O'Reilly,

wrote in his report to Unesco earlier this year.

He added: "It is hoped

that further excavation at Phum Snay will reveal more information on this

critical period before the site is lost forever."

Hing Tim, director of

Banteay Meanchey's cultural office, was equally outraged.

"I think that

Prime Minister Hun Sen should issue a strong 'order' to stop this illegal

activity," he said, expressing concern that important historical information was

being lost. Tim said that despite a ban on illegal excavation, villagers were

still digging for artifacts that they sell on for a few hundred baht.

Tim

told the Post that when he visited the site last week with the provincial

police, he saw villagers digging up graves. He blamed food shortages for the

problem, adding that both Cambodian and Thai middlemen were fueling the problem

by encouraging villagers to dig for gems and artifacts.

"As soon as the

police leave the site, they start to dig again - all day and night. Thai

middlemen have offered them 200 baht for each jewelry gemstone," he said. "I

think a policeman should be deployed at every house to maintain surveillance."

However, he admitted this could be difficult since many graves were

located underneath villagers' houses.

The cemetery was discovered in May

2000 when the World Food Program, which was building a road linking Route 6 to

the village, uncovered human bones, ceramic pottery and gold and bronze jewelry

with gemstones.

Officials from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts

(MoC) then visited the site and decided to distribute rice to the villagers to

prevent them digging illegally.

In February this year Dr O'Reilly led an

excavation of the site in collaboration with MoC and the Royal University of

Fine Arts.

In his report, Dr O'Reilly noted that his team had found 300

artifacts in nine prehistoric graves. Among the items uncovered were ceramic

vessels, glass beads, grinding stones, carnelian beads, bronze bangles, iron

tools and weapons, and human and animal bones.

Although he was still

waiting for carbon testing results, Dr O'Reilly estimated that the cemetery

dated from 300-500 AD, Cambodia's Late Iron Age.

Chuch Phoeurn,

under-secretary of state at the MoC, said the cemetery was the biggest ever

found in Cambodia.

"We found at least 10 skeletons within only 100 square

meters digging only two meters deep," Phoeurn said. "If we will continue to dig

deeper, we will learn more about the first occupants of villages and will learn

more about what crops the people planted."

He said the findings were

very important for Cambodian history because it showed aspects of ancient

culture such as beliefs, their civilization and how they lived. He added that

the MoC would conduct another excavation early next year in the dry season.

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