Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Locals had a big role in excavations



Locals had a big role in excavations

This undated photograph shows a foreigner watching a Cambodian and another foreigner working at the Bayon temple
This undated photograph shows a foreigner watching a Cambodian and another foreigner working at the Bayon temple. PHOTO COURESTY OF DOCUMENTATION CENTRE OF CAMBODIA

Locals had a big role in excavations

Dear Editor,

This letter is in response to the article written by Emily Wight titled “The invisible Cambodians who went uncredited for the Angkor excavation” published last Friday.

In the article, the writer quoted University of Hawaii PhD candidate Heng Piphal, who stated “you’re always seeing Cambodians, either coolies, paid labourers or assistants to the conservators, but most of their names have never been mentioned”.

What Heng Piphal said is absolutely correct. For decades, Cambodians have played very important roles and greatly contributed to the research done by foreigners in Cambodia. Yet, they are seldom remembered or credited in any way.

Foreigners have often taken advantage of the politics of Cambodia and of Cambodians, viewing Cambodians as no more than simple labourers only interested in money, uneducated, and unworthy of credit.

The fact is that most of the archaeological work in Cambodia was not solely done by foreigners. Actually, local Cambodians contributed significantly to all research. France once ruled over Cambodia and studied Cambodian history and archaeology extensively.

Even considering the special relationship between France and Cambodia and the length and extent of the archaeological work, the French ignored Cambodian participation.

There are numerous cases which illustrate how the French ignored the participation of local Cambodians while they were colonising Cambodia.

Let’s highlight one of the cases – Angkor Wat temple. Numerous publications indicate that Angkor Wat was discovered by the explorer Henri Mouhot. This claim is wrong.

Angkor Wat had never been abandoned by Cambodians. Cambodians had always lived adjacent to the temple and attached themselves to it.

Angkor Wat temple had always been part of their daily life. Historical evidence shows that Cambodians continued to conduct religious ceremonies there after the capital city of Cambodia was moved from Angkor in the 15th century.

The administration was moved, but the hearts of the Cambodian people and their culture was not and has never been removed. Local Cambodians have always worshiped at Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, thus preserving their way of life as well as the temples themselves.

Moreover, before Henri Mouhot visited Angkor Wat, other foreign explorers also visited the temple because Angkor Wat had been the religious center not only for Cambodians, but for the world.

History shows that several foreign explorers visited Cambodia. Zhou Daguon visited Angkor in the 13th century, followed by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Burmese and the Japanese in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It was not unusual for a marvelous building such as Angkor Wat to receive foreign visits, but none of these visitors ever claimed to have discovered it. It is odd then that Henri Mouhot, unlike those previous visitors, overcome by his ego and hubris, claimed that he had discovered something which was in fact never lost.

The fact that thousands of Cambodians never received credit for helping in the scientific archeological work done in our country illustrates one of the troubling issues of colonisation.

The French had more power than we had, said and did whatever they wanted, and all too often there was no reply or rebuttal from Cambodians. But now, Cambodia has its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.

We have our own team of archaeologists and researchers who were trained locally by Cambodians and also trained abroad. In several cases in the last few decades, significant research and archaeological work has been done by Cambodians.

However, one thing we must note is that France is still influencing Cambodian culture and the property of Cambodian ancestors.

The International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC-Angkor) seems to have higher authority and control in the Angkor area than the owner of the cultural property – Cambodians.

That authority and control over Cambodians seems to be permanent. If Cambodians want to develop or conduct extensive research in the Angkor Area, their own home, they must secure permission from the foreigner-led ICC Angkor first.

Cambodia does not have completely independent authority over its own property. Cambodians should have complete access to research and conduct archaeological work on their own property independently. The APSARA Authority has plenty of accredited experts in archaeology, anthropology, history and other areas.

It would be fair to say that no other institution knows more about the Angkor area than the APSARA Authority.

Therefore, the authority should assume a more active role and greater authority over what is in fact Cambodian property without dependence on foreigners. The Royal Academy of Cambodia also has experts to conduct archeological and historical research in the country which they have already begun to do.

By expanding the authority and activities of these two organisations, Cambodians can reclaim their proper place in the scientific study and understanding of our history and in so doing recognise the contributions of our fellow Cambodians to such endeavours in our past.

Nhean Socheat
Faculty of Archaeology,
graduated from Royal University of Fine Arts

MOST VIEWED

  • Siem Reap drain canal now ‘mangrove’ promenade

    A more than half a kilometre long stretch of canal in Siem Reap has been covered and turned into a promenade to attract visitors, said Ly Rasmey, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, on September 16. The new pedestrianised

  • Angkor wildlife, aquarium park still to open October

    The Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium complex about 30km southeast of Siem Reap town with initial total investment of more than $70 million is reportedly still on track for an end-October opening. The park is located on a 100ha plot along National Road 6 in Kbon village, Khchas

  • Final verdicts for Khmer Rouge leaders ‘vital’ for next generation

    Nearly a decade after the commencement of Case 002/02 against Khieu Samphan back in 2014, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is now set to deliver its final verdict for the former Khmer Rouge head of state. The Supreme Court Chamber of the ECCC,

  • Typhoon Noru brings flash floods – 16 dead

    An official warned that that the 16th typhoon of the season, Noru, had brought heavy rains to areas the Mekong River and flooded thousands of homes in the provinces bordering Thailand. As of September 27, the death toll from the flooding had risen to 16. National Committee

  • Defence minister reaffirms Kingdom’s staunch support for One-China policy

    Minister of National Defence General Tea Banh has reaffirmed Cambodia’s unwavering support for the One-China policy. Tea Banh was speaking at the September 20 ceremonial handover of 117 vehicles and other military equipment donated by China’s defence ministry, held at Phnom Chumreay International Military Training

  • Deaths due to ‘lifestyle’ diseases rise in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Health has called on people to pay closer attention to their health to protect themselves from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which it said have caused high rates of deaths in the country. Ministry secretary of state York Sambath made the call at a