In the cluttered backyard of an unassuming stilted house just down the road from the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, archaeologists are digging up a relic of the country’s historical high point: a kiln that once furnished stoneware pottery across the Angkorian empire.
The excavation is the latest effort by Phon Kaseka, director of archaeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, to glean information about centuries of Choeung Ek-area occupants before remaining sites are churned up by development and looting.
“A country does not become an empire unless it has its own production,” Mr. Kaseka said on Wednesday. And in the case of the Angkorian empire, the 69 kilns Mr. Kaseka has identified around Choeung Ek mean that it was once one of the largest pottery production sites in the region.
Fewer than 10 of the kiln sites, which were constructed on large manmade mounds, remain undisturbed, Mr. Kaseka said, giving his three-week, National Geographic Society-funded dig additional urgency.
Mr. Kaseka’s dig is “incredibly timely given the ongoing economic development in the area that will soon destroy these sites,” according to Miriam Stark, an archaeology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has spent decades researching ancient Cambodia. “It’s now or never.”
The 2,572-hectare ING City development is slated to swallow large parts of two nearby lakes, Choeung Ek lake and Boeng Tompun lake, and replace them with an amusement park, skyscraper office buildings, and vast housing tracts.
Archaeologists have only hints as to the area’s Angkorian and pre-Ankorian residents.
“There are actually many sites (generally mounds) all around the area with surface pottery scatters ranging from the Metal Ages to post-Angkor,” Kyle Latinis, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, wrote in an email.
“Many display multiple period[s] of occupation or long period[s] of continuous occupation,” he said, adding that this evidence “represents ‘a lot going on’ rather than a backwater.”
The earliest kilns at Choeung Ek likely date to the 5th century, according to Piphal Eng, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who conducted research on the sites with Mr. Kaseka in 2007. Mr. Kaseka estimates the site of the current dig dates to sometime between the 8th and 13th centuries, a fact he hopes to verify with thermoluminescent dating after the excavation.
Also central to the region was an expansive 10th-century moat, 740 meters in diameter, that is still visible today on Google Earth. Mr. Kaseka believes the structure collected water from the river along channels then distributed it out to farther-flung locales to irrigate a twice-per-year rice harvest throughout the region.
Choeung Ek “provided a lot [of] resources for people to live” as well as [to] make earthenware and stoneware pottery, Mr. Kaseka said. Forests provided fuel for firing, the rich clay provided raw materials and the lake was a link to the Tonle Sap, a “main river that connects to everywhere in Cambodia.”
But before those early potters baked their clay, they first had to make the kiln mound itself, according to Mr. Kaseka. The several-meter-tall mound he is currently exploring—today occupied by troops of pecking hens and anxious archaeologists—was sloped to allow the heat to creep up the kiln. The fire heated the unfinished ceramics, which were mounted on small pedestals, to a crackling 1,100 to 1,300 degrees.
Angkorian-era kilns produced everyday items like water containers and cooking pots, according to Mr. Kaseka. The sites also fired more elaborate ritual pottery, including varieties of vases and small boxes that regularly turn up at high-end auction houses.
It’s not hard to imagine boats docking near the former kiln, which in wet season sits just steps away from the lake, and then floating out along the riverine Angkorian highways. Pottery produced by Choeung Ek’s kilns has turned up all over the country, from Kampot to Stung Treng, though other regions also had kilns of their own.
However, surprisingly little of the pottery seems to have made it outside of the empire, according to Ms. Stark.
“In fact, we are hard-pressed to find Angkorian stonewares as cargo in shipwrecks (in which Thai ceramics were common) or in island [Southeast Asia],” she wrote.
At some point after the 13th century, the production seems to have tapered off.
“About the 15th century, we see a lot more Thai and Vietnamese pottery (and Chinese in more recent centuries) with a distinctive absence of Khmer pottery,” Mr. Latinis wrote.
Still, some local pottery production in Cambodia continues to this day.
“Kampong Chhnang household pottery industry produces and distributes like a massive factory with their own distribution network… and delivers to every household in Cambodia,” Mr. Latinis wrote.
That example proves how hard it can be to draw broader conclusions about economic and social structure from the ancient kilns.
“Based on the distribution…you could easily think it was produced at a centrally controlled massive factory. But it’s not,” according to Mr. Latinis.
Nonetheless, archaeologists agree that studying the Choeung Ek kilns is vital to understanding the Angkorian empire outside of its densely templed core.
“What we don’t know about, and what has probably been largely destroyed through development by now, is about inhabitants in the Phnom Penh area during the Angkorian period,” Ms. Stark wrote on Thursday. “Phon Kaseka’s work is absolutely essential in this regard.”