For Archaeologists, a Dream Find at Angkor Park

Archaeologists are typically happy to find pottery shards when they excavate a site in Angkor Archaeological Park as too many centuries have passed and too many cities have risen and collapsed for them to expect to find major objects in the ground.

So what occurred Saturday seemed like something that happens only in the movies. On the second day of an excavation in Siem Reap province, a team of archaeologists found a 1.9 meter statue weighing about 200 kg at an 800-year-old site in Angkor Park.

Photo statue 3. Photo by Ea Darith
The archaeology team holds a religious ceremony on Sunday to ask the spirit protecting the site permission to move the statue they unearthed the previous day to the Preah Sihanouk Museum in Siem Reap province. (Ea Darith)

“We were very surprised to find this,” said Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist with the Apsara Authority, the government organization managing Angkor Park, and the dig’s scientific supervisor.

The sandstone statue is missing its feet and parts of its legs. Had it been whole, it would have stood at least 2.1 meters, he said. In the image of a guard, it would have stood on the grounds of a hospital that was located next to the northern entrance of Angkor Thom, the walled city of King Jayavarman VII. The excavation began last Friday and is meant to last about 12 days. The hospital is one of the 102 that the 12th century king is believed to have built throughout his Angkorian empire, said Tan Boun Suy, deputy director-general for the Apsara Authority.

“Jayavarman VII’s reign was truly remarkable in terms of social programs,” he said. “The hospital consisted of wooden buildings and a chapel erected in stones. What is left is the chapel…as wooden structures have long disappeared.”

If the excavation unearths other objects of the time, it would provide useful information on the life and activities in those hospitals and also the lives of ordinary people of the era, of which very little is known, he said yesterday.

For this excavation, the Apsara Authority retained Rethy Chhem as an adviser. A university professor and radiologist who heads the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, a Phnom Penh think tank, Dr. Chhem is also a historian and the authority on Angkorian-era hospitals and medicine, Mr. Boun Suy said.

Apsara 1
Archaeologists made a grid to draw the statue yesterday before moving it. (Ea Darith)

Moreover, Dr. Chhem initiated and led the 2006 excavation of a hospital built during the same era near the western gate of Angkor Thom alongside French archaeologist Christophe Pottier.

“There are four hospitals identified at the four cardinal points of Angkor Thom,” Dr. Chhem said last Friday. “They were identified by French archaeologists about 100 years ago, but had never been excavated.”

“In each hospital…there were two shrines within the enclosure,” he said. “The principal shrine has a gate that opens toward the east, the second one…to the west.”

They housed three divinities, including a statue of the Medicine Buddha, Dr. Chhem said.

“We would hit gold if we found the statue of the Buddha.”

Many statues of the Buddha were destroyed during the reign of Jayavarman VIII in the mid-13th century in his effort to restore Brahmanism in the country, and most of those that remained were looted, although some were buried for their protection.

Dr. Chhem and the excavation team never dreamed of finding one of the hospital’s major statues on the second day of excavation. And yesterday, the team kept making discoveries: They found a piece of another statue, Mr. Sokrithy said. “We also found much evidence of wooden structures such as roof tiles and ceramics.”

The excavation is conducted by the Apsara Authority in cooperation with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. As part of a training program, 10 students from Asian countries, the U.S. and Australia are taking part in the excavation, Mr. Sokrithy said.

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