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Kingdom’s original iron men

Members of a research group conduct an archaeological dig at the site of a pre-Angkorian iron smelter in Preah Vihear in 2011
Members of a research group conduct an archaeological dig at the site of a pre-Angkorian iron smelter in Preah Vihear in 2011. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Kingdom’s original iron men

More than 200 ancient “ironworks” sites have now been unearthed across the country – and the man behind their discoveries believes that, combined, they are evidence of what was once the biggest iron industry in Southeast Asia.

Archaeologist Thuy Chanthourn, deputy director of the Institute of Culture and Fine Arts at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said yesterday that a project that began with a “very special” discovery of an Angkor-period ironworks in 2010 is now uncovering sites that pre-date the Khmer Empire.

“My study reveals that the sites in Preah Vihear are, in fact, the biggest in Southeast Asia, though not as big as the ones in China at that time,” he said yesterday.

Since a bulldozer constructing a road in Preah Vihear unearthed the first site, more than 200 have been found in Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear provinces, Chanthourn said.
“The discovery is very special for Cambodia and its history,” he said.

The list of major sites is now at seven, he added, including one in Siem Reap measuring two square kilometres in size. Near that site, the government has set aside 130 square metres of land to develop as a historical site.

Archeological remains – including huge amounts of iron ore – suggest that medium-size sites hosted on average about 30 to 50 workers, who would likely have been undertaking seasonal work, Chanthourn added. Researchers estimate that remains found three metres underground are about 1,200 years old, while those up to six metres below the surface pre-date Cambodia’s famous Angkorian Era.

“Without iron, there would have been no Khmer Empire and no temples, roads, buildings or ponds. They used iron to dig,” he said.

Chanthourn believes there is much more to be discovered, and although his research is helped by funding from the government, charitable organisations and private companies, he needs more.

“We basically need money to continue our research,” he said. “We’re also up against land grabbing in some places – [companies] are bulldozing areas on what could be ancient sites waiting to
be discovered.”

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