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Scholar Thomas Maxwell, known for his expertise in Khmer history, dies in Siem Reap aged 74

Scholar of ancient Indian and Khmer history Thomas Maxwell (L), pictured with his wife Khieu Sreypov and nephew. Photo supplied
Scholar of ancient Indian and Khmer history Thomas Maxwell (L), pictured with his wife Khieu Sreypov and nephew. Photo supplied

Scholar Thomas Maxwell, known for his expertise in Khmer history, dies in Siem Reap aged 74

Thomas Maxwell, a noted scholar of ancient Indian and Khmer history and culture, died of heart failure at his home in Siem Reap town Sunday last week, colleagues and family confirmed today. He was 74.

Born in England, Maxwell would go on to study at the University of London, and by the end of his life picked up fluency in Hindi, German, French, Khmer and ancient Khmer.

Peter Sharrock of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies expressed praise for Maxwell’s work as scholar.

“His 1997 book The Gods of Asia: Image, Text and Meaning, is a classic because of its lucid descriptions of the identities, mythologies and iconographies of the interlinked multitude of gods in Hinduism,” Sharrock said.

Prior to taking up teaching at the University of Bonn in Germany, Maxwell worked at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, according to Sharrock. From Bonn he began annual visits to Cambodia, and was a key contributor to the noted 2007 anthology Bayon: New Perspectives.

After retiring from Bonn after two decades, he settled in Siem Reap in 2008 but continued to contribute to academia until 2015, translating ancient inscriptions from Banteay Chhmar and Preah Khan temples.

There he married his second wife, Khieu Sreypov, 40, in 2006.

Maxwell’s death, along with the recent passing of several other high-profile historians who shaped the view of Cambodian history, marks the “end of an era”, said Ashley Thompson, chair of the London school's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

“Without forgetting the singularity of each of these men, it must be said that together, and with many others still among us, they shaped visions of Cambodian history shared by many today,” she wrote.

Described by his acquaintances as highly solitary and quiet, Maxwell’s brother-law Khieu Thy recalled him as “always smiling, friendly, funny and gentle but takes his work seriously”.

He is survived by his widow Sreypov, his ex-wife Jenni Maxwell, and twin sons from his first marriage Jay and Lee. A traditional Khmer funeral will occur at his home in Siem Reap through March 2, and his cremation is scheduled for Thursday.

Additional reporting by Ouk Suntharoth

The original version of this article misstated Thomas Maxwell’s nationality. He is in fact British. This article has been updated with additional biographical details about Maxwell obtained after the original publication.

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