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Team digs into Cambodia’s ‘dark ages’

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Longvek-era royal bronze foundry near Boeung Samrith, north of Oudong Mountain. Photo supplied
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Longvek-era royal bronze foundry near Boeung Samrith, north of Oudong Mountain. Photo supplied

Team digs into Cambodia’s ‘dark ages’

A team of archaeologists hope the discovery of a bronze foundry near the ancient site of Longvek will yield information about an era thought to be lost to history.

A footnote, a hunch and a land development project near Boeung Samrith led to the discovery this month of an ancient bronze foundry that served Cambodia’s 16th-century kings at Longvek.

The find in Kampong Chhnang province could yield insight into Cambodia’s Middle Period, the era between the fall of Angkor and the beginning of the French protectorate often called the “dark ages” because few records of it exist.

The discovery culminates a two-year search by a team of researchers led by Dr Martin Polkinghorne of Flinders University in Australia, whose first hint came from a footnote in the Cambodian Royal Chronicles, which were compiled centuries after the foundry’s existence.

The chronicles mention that King An Chan I ordered that a dam be built just north of Oudong Mountain to create a pond next to the royal bronze foundry. The manuscripts identify the location as Boeung Samrith, which means “bronze lake” in Khmer.

Archaeologist Dr Martin Polkinghorne leads a project that hopes to bring to light details about Cambodia’s capitals following the Ayutthayan sack of Angkor in 1431.
Archaeologist Dr Martin Polkinghorne leads a project that hopes to bring to light details about Cambodia’s capitals following the Ayutthayan sack of Angkor in 1431. Nicky Sullivan

Going off that description alone was a gamble for the team, Polkinghorne says.

“We have little reason to believe most of the content of the Chronicles as they were largely compiled in the 19th century and are a perplexing amalgam of inexact dates, legendary characters and complex dynastic rivalries recorded long after the events they purport to describe,” he explains.

Even with the assistance of LiDAR [laser] survey data from the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO), it took six expeditions around Longvek to find the foundry.

An area the team had previously passed over was cleared for development, and they took a second look. A team member spotted a clay crucible fragment. Soon, more appeared, as well as the remains of a copper alloy.

In the weeks since the initial find, the archaeologists have unearthed furnaces, crucibles and metal debris. For now, the team are not exactly sure of the objects that were being made, but judging by the size of the furnaces and the number of crucibles, it is likely the projects were large scale.

Now, rigorous scientific analyses should be undertaken, and the area needs to be preserved for further excavation – something which Polkinghorne says the Ministry of Culture might be open to.

The young Cambodian team members are excited about the find.

Meas Sreyneat excavates a furnace. Sreyneat says she hopes the dig will provide clarity on life during the Cambodian ‘dark ages’. Photo supplied
Meas Sreyneat excavates a furnace. Sreyneat says she hopes the dig will provide clarity on life during the Cambodian ‘dark ages’. Photo supplied

“It is a wonderful discovery,” says Meas Sreyneat, a recent Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) graduate who hopes it will provide clarity on the life of Cambodians during the ‘dark ages’. The presence of the furnaces, she says, suggests the period was more developed than previously thought.

Teav Sreynit, another RUFA graduate, adds that she thinks the find could help to better understand the “stature” of Longvek as a capital city.

The work by Polkinghorne and his team over the past two years is part of the first systematic study of Cambodia’s capitals after the sacking of Angkor by the Ayutthayans in 1431.

In A History of Cambodia, the historian David Chandler says that it was not just the invasion that led to the capital at Angkor being left behind.

“It seems the social organisation, bureaucracy and economic priorities of Angkor . . . were no longer strong enough to balance the human costs of maintaining a Cambodian capital [there],” he writes. More recent work suggests that changes in climate also played a role.

And increasing reliance on foreign trade meant that moving capitals was less a collapse than a matter of practicality.

“Successive Cambodian kings occupied palaces at Srei Santhor, Phnom Penh, Pursat and Boribor before relocating to Longvek in the first half of the 16th century,” Polkinghorne says. Even now, the location of the Longvek palace – a primary question for the archaeologists – remains a mystery.

The team has unearthed two furnaces used for bronze-making at the site. Photo supplied
The team has unearthed two furnaces used for bronze-making at the site. Photo supplied

What has emerged from secondary sources, especially Japanese trade logs, is that there was significant economic activity during the so-called “dark ages”, challenging the narrative that cultural development waned during the period.

Chandler notes that the period in which Longvek was the capital was also part of a moment in which the Thai Ayutthayans and the Khmers “looked to each other rather than to a Brahmanical past for exemplary behaviour”, and “considered themselves . . . participants in a hybrid culture”.

For Polkinghorne, the archaeologist, putting the limited textual records to the test through digs is the only way to find out more about an era that – for now – remains shrouded in mystery.

“Working on this period represents a new chapter in Cambodian archaeology,” he says.

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