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Dr. Alison Carter. Photo supplied

Digging beneath the surface

For many expats, Cambodia is no more than another country to be ticked off the list of places to spend two years before moving on to the next posting. But that’s not the case for archaeologist Dr. Alison Carter.

Currently based in Siem Reap, American Dr. Carter is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

She first came to Cambodia in 2005 to work with the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project at Angkor Borei in Takeo Province, and fell in love with the country.

“My first trip here in 2005, I spoke no Khmer and knew very little about the country and yet the people I met were incredibly generous with their time and energy. They were willing to work with me and so I kept returning.”

And, she adds, “I’m probably biased, but I think it has the most interesting archaeology of anywhere in the world.”

Carter’s current work focuses on household archaeology, with a special interest in glass and stone beads. She says that her work is consistently fascinating: “Every time I come back I think it can’t get any better.”

She says that there have been many number of highlights to her work in Cambodia.

“Working on an excavation of a house mound in the Angkor Wat enclosure last year was pretty great. I visited Angkor Wat for the first time ten years before as a tourist, and had lots of questions about the people who might have lived and worked around the temple. It felt satisfying to return ten years later as a researcher to start addressing some of those questions.” 

The Khmer Rouge era ripped huge holes in the fabric of Cambodian academic life, as it did with all other facets of the country. But Carter says that concerted efforts are being made to remedy this.

“In the 1990s you could count the number of Cambodian archaeologists left alive after the Khmer Rouge on one hand. The Lower Mekong Archaeological Project, led by Dr. Miriam Stark, was established in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to help train a new generation of Cambodian archaeologists, and every project I’ve worked on in Cambodia has had a training component.”

And she says that the efforts are bearing fruit. “Now, many of these former students are teachers and active researchers. Many have gone on to get higher degrees, leading their own projects and publishing their work.”

And Carter rejects any hint of a colonial-type of mindset, which can be prevalent in archaeological circles: “I want my work here to remain truly collaborative with my very capable Cambodian colleagues.” 

Carter says she is quietly confident about Cambodia’s future.

“I won’t presume to be an expert on Cambodian politics, but I follow the news just like everyone else. My Cambodian friends and colleagues seem cautiously optimistic, so I am too.” 

Carter says she plans to continue to work in Cambodia for as long as she possibly can.

“Absolutely. I’ve been studying Khmer since 2006 and I’ve got many friends and colleagues here. It would be nice to retire here as a happy old lady.” 

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