Archaeologists digging in search of common people

Pieces of sandstone that researchers think might have been used for a house mound discovered during a 2013 excavation
Pieces of sandstone that researchers think might have been used for a house mound discovered during a 2013 excavation. ALISON CARTER

Archaeologists digging in search of common people

In Angkor Wat research, the focus has long been on temples and high society. A new project there is taking a different approach, laying the foundation for a new understanding of the iconic empire

A team excavating a dirt mound at Angkor Wat is hoping to shed light on one of the enduring blank spots in archeologists’ understanding of the Angkorian empire: the lives of its common people.

It’s a fresh direction in the field of Angkorian archaeology, according to the leader of the dig, Alison Carter, 35, an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney.

“We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the temples and inscriptions and the elite members of the society, but there’s still so much that can be learned about the regular people who were contributing to the Angkorian empire. I hope that this project can spark some interest in those regular people,” she said this week.

Carter, an American who has been doing archaeology work in Cambodia for 10 years, said that her excavation was the first of its kind to focus directly on, what she believes to be, an Angkorian-era home.

The project, titled “Excavating Angkor: Household Archeology at Angkor Wat” which began in early June and will continue through July, is funded primarily by the US-based National Geographic Society, as well as the Dumbarton Oaks institute. It is a part of the larger Greater Angkor Project, an umbrella research initiative managed by the University of Sydney and the APSARA Authority.

“This project is focused on excavating a house mound within the Angkor Wat enclosure. We’re trying to do a horizontal excavation. We’re not opening one huge trench but multiple trenches across this mound, and we’re doing that to try to understand where and how people are living,” Carter said.

“You could [call this] groundbreaking, not just because it is a good archaeological pun, but also because it does signal a shift in how people have been studying Angkor since the French began their research here.”

Carter and her international team are looking for artefacts of daily life – pots, utensils, food remains, gardens – hoping to piece together a picture of what life was like for the non-elite during and after the reign of the Angkor empire from circa 802AD to about 1463AD.

Team members Pov Suy (in trench), Pipad Krajaejun and Alison Carter examine a trench
Team members Pov Suy (in trench), Phirom Vitou (front), Alison Carter (middle) and Pipad Krajaejun (back) examine a trench. SUPPLIED

“Basically, anything that anyone does around the house and at home, we’re trying to find material evidence of that,” she added.

The idea for her project stemmed from a 2013 excavation within the Angkor Wat enclosure that found ceramics, cooking vessels, Chinese tradewares and other features that suggested human habitation. It was an important find, said Carter, but one that was largely overshadowed by the published results of another project: an extensive aerial laser surveying – known as lidar – of Angkor and its surrounding temples that was released around the time of the 2013 dig.

Along with evidence of daily activities, Carter and her team are also looking for signs of postholes in their mound.

“It’s a tricky process. It’s hard to study Angkorian houses because the houses themselves were above ground, so we’re using a variety of different strategies to try to pick up as much information as we possibly can,” she said.

Those strategies include methods that have not been used so far in the study of Angkor, such as soil analysis. Through several methods, including analysis of both macro and micro materials, team members can deduce a number of things from the dirt: where there might have been entryways, which areas were used for food preparation and areas where there may have been a garden.

Dougald O’Reilly, a senior lecturer in archeology at the Australian National University, said that to date, most research of the Khmer empire had examined things mostly from a macro perspective.

“It is encouraging to see this type of work being undertaken to bring to light the subtle nuances of daily life at Angkor at the height of its power. It will bring a far more textured understanding of the past,” O’Reilly said.

Carter said that, due to a binding agreement with National Geographic, she was unable to disclose the specific details of what her team had discovered so far.

However, she did say that the team had discovered a lot of ceramics that seemed to be related to cooking.

“We’re finding evidence of how the mound was constructed and how people might have been living on it,” she said.

Team member Cristina Castillo, from University College London who is studying macrobotanical remains, said they hoped to continue the research in the residential areas to find out more about the local people’s diets and farming systems, which may have included horticultural activities adjacent to their residences.

“After all, rice was the staple, but they were eating a variety of crops, and fish and animals, as well,” she said.

Carter stressed that this excavation was just the beginning of what she hoped would be a renewed focus on the lives of regular Angkorians.

“Once we start getting a bigger data set of house mounds and households then we can really start seeing and saying a lot more about Angkorian society and what the daily lives of people were like,” she said.

“This is the power of archaeological research – to give a voice to these parts of the past.”

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