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The ‘invisible Cambodians’ who went uncredited for Angkor excavations

French archaeologists at Bakheng temple near Siem Reap.  ECOLE FRANCAISE D’EXTREME ORIENT
French archaeologists at Bakheng temple near Siem Reap. ECOLE FRANCAISE D’EXTREME ORIENT

The ‘invisible Cambodians’ who went uncredited for Angkor excavations

Many Cambodians who excavated the temples have gone without credit - and the problem continues today, some argue

When people think of archaeology in Cambodia, names like Henri Mouhot, who popularised the Angkorian temples through his journals, might spring to mind. Those in the know might think of Etienne Aymonier, the first archaeologist to systematically survey the ruins of the Khmer empire, or Lunet de Lajonquiere, who carefully created an inventory of the temples.

But little thought has been given to the Cambodian people who played an integral role in helping them with their work. That is, until the annual Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) conference in Siem Reap a couple of weeks ago, when archaeologist Heng Piphal gave a presentation entitled ‘Invisible Cambodians’, telling the story of the labourers, assistants and archaeologists who helped the French during the Protectorate period and beyond.

An archaeological site in Memot,  Tbong Khmum Province (formerly Kampong Cham), 1962.  MICHELE PIRAZZOLI
An archaeological site in Memot, Tbong Khmum Province (formerly Kampong Cham), 1962. MICHELE PIRAZZOLI

Speaking on the phone from Siem Reap two weeks after the conference, Piphal spoke of the many books that talk about French explorers and conservators in Angkor but which fail to acknowledge the Cambodian involvement. He said: “My presentation was to highlight how Cambodians have been involved since the beginning.”

In his presentation, which was partly based on findings from Penny Edwards’ book Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860 - 1945, Piphal showed photographs which he collected from the École française d’Extrême-Orient – the French institute concerned with the study of Asian societies – showing Cambodian labourers and assistants who helped the French to excavate the temples. In the images, Cambodian labourers are seen on excavation sites with spades, and looking at equipment with the French. Piphal, who is a PhD student at the University of Hawaii, and currently in Siem Reap for fieldwork, said: “You’re always seeing Cambodians, either coolies, paid labourers or assistants to the conservators, but most of their names have never been mentioned.”

He added that although some of these names would be in original archived daily reports by French conservators – which have never been published – they were never credited in French publications. He said: “You’ve got to really sift through information to find them – you have to take up the original report to find their names, otherwise they don’t really exist.”

He also referenced a notebook found in the Musée Guimet in Paris which contained scribblings about a trip to Laos by a colleague of Aymonier’s – a Cambodian named Ros. He said: “Aymonier based his book on this notebook.”

Heng Piphal and Apsara archaeologists carrying out excavation work at Ta Prohm in Angkor.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Heng Piphal and Apsara archaeologists carrying out excavation work at Ta Prohm in Angkor. PHOTO SUPPLIED

He added that they weren’t just labourers or “coolies” – some Cambodians would be in charge of teams carrying out excavation and restoration work. “Their boss only went to check on them once or twice a day, but most of them would excavate and they would report to their boss on what was going on,” he said. He added that records show that excavation work on the central tower of Angkor Wat in the early 1930s was done by a Cambodian who then reported his findings to his French superior.

Furthermore, none of the French leaders of the excavation teams were actually formally trained archaeologists, he said. “When they worked at Angkor they trained themselves to become archaeologists, but they weren’t archaeologists by trade.”He added that the first archaeologist in charge of Angkor conservation was Bernard Philippe Groslier during the 1960s.

So why were so many Cambodians erased from their own history? An obvious answer might be that it was down to colonial power structures. In his presentation, Piphal highlighted what he calls “the idea of colonial legitimacy” – the importance of making the French protectorate seem legitimate in the eyes of the French public – as a reason for the French erasing Cambodian workers from publications. “To provide legitimacy to the French public, you have to make a good case that the French Protectorate was here for a good reason, and one of those reasons was to help restore Angkor Wat,” he said.

But Piphal doesn’t want to, as he calls it, “blame the foreigners.” He believes it is crucial to take into account the “social setting around the archaeological practice in Cambodia”. Firstly, a lack of formal education made it hard for Cambodians to get involved in the archaeological work itself, he said. Before the French arrived, there was no formal instruction in archaeology or even understanding about how the Angkorian temples were built. As a result, even if the work of Cambodian archaeologists had been documented, it would have been unlikely to have been read by many in the Kingdom. Piphal said: “If Cambodians wanted to publish records for example of travels around Cambodia and Laos and Thailand, it would be very unlikely that other Cambodians would read it in the sense that the education system doesn’t favour archaeological work that much. If those Cambodians wrote something very detailed about the history or archaeology of Cambodia, not many Cambodians would read it.”

Son Soubert, an archaeology lecturer at the Faculty of Archaeology in Phnom Penh, agreed that Cambodians at the time did not have archaeological training. He said: “The first batch of archaeologists formed at the Faculty of Archaeology was after independence when [King Father Norodom] Sihanouk created all these universities.”


He said that had Cambodians been mentioned in the archaeological publications, professors and students at the Faculty would have been interested in deciphering who was involved in the excavations.

Soubert studied archaeology and classics at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 1960s and 1970s, and also spent time researching at the Department of Indology in the French Institute of Pondicherry, India, which had been colonised by the French. He said that unlike here, at the Institute in Pondicherry, Indian scholars or pandits were mentioned in publications. Of their Cambodian counterparts, he said: “I guess you can say that they were invisible Cambodians.”

Piphal draws links between the “invisible Cambodians” and what the political philosopher Adam Smith referred to as “invisible hands” of labourers in any capitalist system. He said: “You can look at the invisible hands within a factory chain, so you get the products from the factories but you don’t know who made them – the workers become invisible in that sense.”

From their “invisible” status during the French Protectorate period up to today, Cambodians have had a rough ride when it comes to archaeology. In 1965 the Royal University of Fine Arts was established in Phnom Penh, including a Faculty of Archaeology.

However like all of the Kingdom’s academic and artistic institutions, its original glory years were cut short within a decade due to civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime. Piphal said there were only two or three who graduated from the Faculty’s first batch, and the next generation were mostly killed off by the Khmer Rouge. After Pol Pot’s regime was over, he said, there were only three Cambodian archaeologists left.

HE Chuch Phoeurn – one of the Cambodians to survive the Khmer Rouge era, who now works at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts – re-opened the Faculty in 1989, with help from Cambodians in France, French professors and a UNESCO project that hired international professors from France, Japan and the United States to teach there. Son Soubert returned to Phnom Penh from France in 1991, and began teaching at the Faculty in 1993.

Now, Piphal said, Cambodia’s archaeology sector is very much finding its feet. The IPPA conference hosted 700 international speakers, including Cambodians. Piphal referred to the conference as a “good example of a solid team of Cambodian archaeologists”.

However, according to Piphal, ‘Invisible Cambodians’ is far from being a phenomenon of the past. Even today, he said, a neo-colonial attitude still prevails, and international excavation projects will fail to mention in public reports the Cambodians who worked on them. He knows several people, he said, who have given their archaeological expertise to these projects, but have not been recognised. He said: “It’s the same pattern as we’ve seen with the colonial period – if you read the reports from the institutions, most Cambodians are absent.”

He added: “That just reproduces the idea that Cambodians don’t know enough, and that Cambodian cultural heritage needs to be saved by international projects. I think this creates the image of Cambodians being incapable of researching or restoring their own heritage.”

Phon Kaseka, who is the director of the Archaeology Department at the Royal Academy of Cambodia and who organised the IPPA conference, agreed, saying that sometimes, “Cambodians are not appreciated by these foreigners.”

Piphal also said that although there are now many Cambodians graduating from the Faculty and working for the Apsara Authority, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, or the National Authority of Preah Vihear, none of them are project directors.

He said: “I think they have enough capability to work on their own. I think it’s about time to have Cambodian project directors in Angkor.”


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