AMERICAN and Cambodian archeologists have wrapped up their investigations at Angkor
Borei for the year, and have found exciting evidence to enhance the site's claim
as the cradle and a center of the oldest civilization in South-east Asia.
Evidence may also have been uncovered that will push back the earliest confirmed
dates of Khmer ethnicity.
Archeologists from Hawaii have worked side by side with Cambodian archeologists from
the Faculty of Archeology in Phnom Penh to expand investigations started last summer
in Takeo province.
The leaders of the investigation were Doctors Chuch Phoeurn, Mir-iam Stark, Judy
Ledgerwood and Bion Griffin. Phoeurn is the deputy director of the National Research
Committee and dean of the Faculty of Archeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Stark and Griffin are professors in the Department of Anthropology at the University
of Hawaii. Ledgerwood came to Cambodia from the East-West Center in Hawaii.
"We would like to open a new era in archeological research into Cambodia's past
by focusing on the Funan civilization," says Church, noting that the long-term
project represents a reorientation of the study of Cambodia's past, from focusing
on the Angkor civilization to earlier periods.
Stark said that the team chose Angkor Borei, located about ten kms from the Vietnamese
border, for their study because it was an important early center of the Funan civilization,
a predecessor of the Angkor civilization, and because of its relative safety.
Chuch said that two of the three most important Funan sites are in Cambodia - at
Bah Phnom in Prey Veng and at Ankgor Borei. The third is Oc Eo in southern Vietnam.
Angkor Borei was also chosen because the archeological deposits there are sufficiently
intact - in spite of recent looting - to merit long-term research.
Oc Eo, in southern Vietnam, first excavated in the 1950s by Louis Malleret, has been
largely destroyed through vandalism since, though French archeological teams are
said to be planning to resume research there.
Angkor Borei is also interesting because it has a city wall and moat which can still
be discerned on aerial photographs and appear on topographic maps. Stark said: "Angkor
Borei has the ruins of at least ten temples, probably dating from the first centuries
On nearby Phnom Da sits an eleventh century temple on the ruins of a seventh century
Funan was a civilization that stretched east and south into Vietnam, and also west
across Thailand and south as far as present day peninsular Malaysia, perhaps into
Sumatra, Stark said.
Of the three major Funan sites, Angkor Borei is certainly the oldest and "all
evidence points to Funan as being one of the earliest civilizations in south east
Asia," Stark said.
But the exact date of Angkor Borei's earliest occupation, and of the Funan civilization
that historians believe existed there, is still not known.
Part of the aim of the research is to make headway on this problem, and to understand
"how they lived and what they did." The research also hopes to find evidence
on the question of whether the Funan civilization was Khmer, as Cambodian scholars
believe, and as Vietnamese scholars have disputed.
For Chuch and other scholars, though not all, the question of continuity between
the Funan and Angkor civilizations is an important one, and Chuch hopes that these
investigations will also shed some light on the question.
Funan is the name given the culture in the lower Mekong by Chinese travelers who
provided descriptions of what they saw from the third to the sixth centuries.
The famous French scholar George Coedes also used the name Funan for the civilization
that preceded Angkor, and described walled settlements, wooden palaces and active
trade networks that characterized some settlements throughout the lower Mekong Delta.
The answer to the question of continuity is a point of dispute between Vietnamese
and Cambodian scholars.
Vietnamese scholars visiting Hawaii this past year are quoted by Cambodians who attended
the meetings as claiming that the Funan civilization is a fore-runner of the Vietnamese
rather than the Angkor (Khmer) civilization.
But many in the Cambodian archeological community firmly believe that the Funan civilization
was in a very real sense "Khmer."
Vietnamese scholars are quoted as saying: "The Funan empire existed before Khmer
ethnicity arose. Linguistic evidence that these people were indeed Khmer is simply
The first date for a confirmed Khmer language inscription accepted by all scholars
is the seventh century. These scholars also emphasized the fact that more than eighty
sites similar to Angkor Borei have been identified in southern Vietnam.
Angkor Borei may have already provided some evidence for pushing back the date.
A large inscribed schist stone is awaiting translation and dating. The temple from
which it came will be dated using Carbon-14 techniques, and if the translation confirms
that the transcription is Khmer, the earliest date of confirmed Khmer language usage
may be pushed back into the fourth or fifth century from the seventh century date
currently accepted by scholars, and perhaps more importantly, into the Funan civilization.
Stark says that the temples of Angkor Borei, as they are uncovered, might also provide
evidence that will bear on the question of continutity.
"As the [ten Angkor Borei] temples are uncovered, we might see continuities
between those at Angkor Borei" and those later constructed during the Angkor
But Stark emphasized that American-style archeology is equally or more concerned
with other kinds of questions than whether the people of Funan were Khmer.
"There is no question that the people of the Angkor empire were Khmer. But as
to Funan, we don't know what language they spoke, though we can find out how old
the site is, what agriculture was engaged in, what the demographic potential of the
site was. We can learn how they lived, and what they did.
"But whether they were Khmer is perhaps an unanswerable question."