Archaeological site at the Choeung Ek killing fields under threat as fast-paced urbanisation takes its toll on the area
Buried in the dirt at the Choeung Ek killing fields, among the skeletal remains of Pol Pot’s victims, are far more ancient relics: black, red and brown ceramic shards that have added a crucial page to Phnom Penh’s early history.
The discovery of 69 pottery kilns in the early 2000s by archaeologist Phon Kaseka indicated that an industrious community established itself in the fifth century, about a thousand years before Phnom Penh became the capital.
Kaseka, who is the director of archeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Choeung Ek was the oldest known kiln site in Southeast Asia to have produced the ceremonial vessels known as kendi.
But, according to UNESCO, the relics may be poised to “disappear forever” as fast-paced urbanisation takes its toll on the historical site. To answer some remaining crucial questions, the UN’s heritage protection body will conduct what may be the final survey of the site this week.
“The unique value of this archaeological potential at Phnom Penh’s doors, and imminent threat, justify this sauvetage [rescue] intervention to better date and understand the functioning of this round site, which remains until now an enigma,” said Anne LeMaistre, UNESCO country head.
Meng Eda, of Meng Real Estate group, which is developing more than 100 hectares of land at Choeung Ek, said that she can sell a 1.2 hectare plot for up to $12,000. “We have many customers already, and we’ve sold out 60 plots in nearly two months,” she said, adding that she is unaware of any archeological significance in the area.
The historical record has little to say about the area before Phnom Penh became the Khmer capital in 1432. Legend has it that a settlement was founded at Chaktomuk in the 14th century after a woman known as Daun Penh built a shrine on top of the hill that became known as Wat Phnom.
But LeMaistre said the archeological remains suggest that a “proto urban site” existed at Chaktomuk since the time of the Funan Kingdom, the earliest known polity of Cambodia, around the fifth century.
Kaseka decided to explore the site at Choeung Ek in 2000 after a colleague noticed the ceramic shards, which are still easy to spot among the bits of bone at the genocide memorial.
Kaseka then discovered the buried remnants of the kilns dating from the fifth to 13th centuries. The finds included both early earthenware and the more advanced stoneware kilns of later centuries.
He said the area lent itself to settlement thanks to fish in the lake for food and nearby forests for fuel to fire the kilns. The lake was a source of clay, while the nearby rivers would have served as a water route on which to trade their products with Angkor.
A seventh-century Brahmanic inscription in Old Khmer discovered at the site indicated the residents have been Khmer at least as far back as the time of the pre-Angkorian Chenla Kingdom. “Even though Angkor was flourishing as an empire, other places outside Angkor in Cambodia – subordinate areas – maybe also flourished and developed as well,” Kaseka said.
Choeung Ek pottery, which is distinguishable by its flying bird logo, has been unearthed at Angkor, Preah Vihear and many other important Angkorian archeological sites, he said.
The theory that there was a large community is bolstered by a circular earthwork structure nearby that is 740 metres in diameter and four metres high. Built in the 11th century, it was used as a reservoir to store water for the dry season. Kaseka does not know when it fell into disuse, though he said memories of the site seem to have been passed down to Choeung Ek’s contemporary residents.
“Old people call this location the water gate,” he said, referring to the old water outlet on the circle’s northeast corner.
The settlement would have been well known to King Ponhea Yat when he first moved the royal court from Angkor to Phnom Penh. “It was not by chance that the king moved to Chaktomuk without knowing of any developed areas – the king would have already known it was developed,” Kaseka said.
The site remained relatively unscathed for centuries, but over the past 50 years most of the kiln mounds have been destroyed, some in the 1960s, when Sino-Khmers created a cemetery around the modern-day Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, others when the Khmer Rouge dug the mass graves in the area. Construction in the past 10 years, Kaseka said, has resulted in even more of the kiln mounds disappearing, as rising land prices encourage local farmers to sell their land to developers.
Nancy Beavan, a radiocarbon dating specialist from New Zealand’s University of Otago who helped date the site, said Kaseka’s team acted at the eleventh hour to document the site before it disappears. “Their Herculean efforts at rescue archaeology saved and recorded precious cultural heritage information that would have otherwise been lost in the subsequent bulldozing of these sites for construction landfill,” she said.
Only 10 of the kiln mounds are known to remain intact.
Kaseka said there was more to study before time runs out, particularly the 100-year gap between the end of the kiln production and the founding of Phnom Penh. “It is the big question for the future,” he said.