A French-directed archeological team.
A5000-year-old human skeleton that experts say confirms the existence of a major
pre-Angkorian civilization has come into conflict with heritage and conservation
authority's plans to restore the gigantic Western Baray for use as an irrigation
reservoir for local rice farming.
French archeologist Dr Christophe Pottier dug up a complete human skeleton in May
from a grave in the middle of the baray. The skeleton, which dates from between 2000
and 3000 BC, was found only 10 cm under the surface of the sedimented floor of the
baray, which was built as a water reservoir early in the 11th century by slave labor.
The key indicators for the age of the grave were brick fragments (Angkorians used
cut sandstone building blocks) and pottery shards bearing chisel marks.
Pottier believes an ancient city may be uncovered by further excavation.
The government has also considered use of the baray as a reservoir for the Siem Reap
city water supply, but it was judged not big enough (see end of story).
The baray area is 60,000 square meters in surface area. Pottier's team got approval
to survey three sites of one square meter each, and the grave was found in one of
them. The dig was only possible because of this year's exceptional dry season, meaning
the water table was lower for longer than usual. Even so, the survey team had only
a three-day window to complete the three digs.
Pottier, a member of the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO, a French government
agency which has been studying Angkor for over 100 years), said he was talking with
Apsara, the Angkor heritage protection authority in Siem Reap, about whether water
entry to the baray could be stopped for archeological work.
It was also technically possible to prevent water intrusion into dig sites but only
at great cost. He said it was up to Apsara and the city government to work out a
way of achieving both the archaeological and irrigation objectives, or whether one
had to be sacrificed for the greater value of the other.
Ros Borath, deputy director of Apsara, said use of the baray for water storage "must
be carefully considered as the site seems to be rich with information about Cambodian
history. We are investigating ways of drying the baray for archeological work, stopping
the water leaking out, and also removing the sediment to increase storage.
"This discovery has got us thinking about what else could be under the water
in the Angkor area. Until now we have only looked around the monuments. Apsara is
very concerned about what could be under the Tonle Sap as well as the man-made canals,
moats and lakes."
Pottier said the existence of the skeleton meant that the commonly told story of
the Angkor empire having started in 802 AD with King Jayavarman II was no longer
sustainable. Until now the only other evidence of a pre-Angkorian people was the
discovery in 1934-35 of brick structures and a column bearing the then oldest inscription
in Angkor, dated 713 AD.
"The only other prehistoric site in Cambodia is Koh Ta Meas, dated at 3000 BC.
This one is at least 2000 BC. In the Angkor area the previous oldest find was four
years ago, 1000-to-800 BC. This one is much older."
The May dig sites were chosen by first using survey instruments to determine height
differences in the sediment surface. A bulge of 65 centimeters was noted. Everything
lying on the baray bed in that area was collected and recorded. Sediment core samples
proved it was shallow (5-to-30 cm).
Pottier said the depth proved that sedimentation buildup "cannot be used as
a valid argument to explain the decline of the hydrological system. The baray was
a water reservoir which allowed them to grow additional rice crops".
"In the second site we found a grave containing a complete human skeleton, on
its back, sex unknown. Several pottery jars were beside it, and the bones of a pig's
head at its feet. This ritual was a very early practice, carried out before the Hindus
introduced cremation to Cambodia. There was no jewelry, iron or copper present.
"The grave was only ten centimeters below the surface. It would have been one
to three meters deep originally. We found fragments of bone deeper under the body
so it's likely there had been others buried there earlier."
The skeleton has been taken to the National University of Singapore where it is being
DNA-tested, carbon-dated and sexed by an osteo-archeological (ancient bones) research
group directed by Professor Rethy Chhem, a member of the Cambodian Academy of Medicine.
The group includes anthropologist Fabrice Demeter from the College de France, Paris.
Excavates the grave of a human skeleton, right, in the Western Baray near Angkor Wat in May. The grave, possibly dating from 3000 BC, was unearthed in 10 cm of sediment. The skeleton is now being studied in Singapore. The team had only three days to dig three sites in the baray before the water table began rising.
Pottier said: "The Angkor builders completely leveled the baray area when they
built it. They would have flattened any existing buildings. They totally remodelled
the environment so it's very hard to find pre-Angkorian sites.
"On the third site there was evidence of the destruction of an Angkorian temple.
We think there would have been a very dense population here. We are still working
"The grave would have been considerably earlier than the seventh century. No
temples were built before eleventh century and the depth of sediment establishes
that there has been no sedimentation since the seventh century."
Siem Reap is facing water supply problems as its population mushrooms with the Angkor
temples tourism industry growth. Currently all potable water is obtained from bores
or collected from roofs.
Four options have been evaluated by the Japanese International Co-operation Agency
for the Ministry of Industry Mines and Energy (on behalf of the municipality): the
Western Baray, Tonle Sap, Siem Reap River and groundwater.
A MIME spokesman said groundwater offered the best value for money for the next 30
years. The baray was not large enough to meet the city's future needs but if restored
to leakproof status it could provide backup storage. The Tonle Sap and river presented
excessively high operational and maintenance costs.