A Life Uncovering Angkor

After 18 Years, French Archeologist’s Time in Siem Reap Comes to a Close

Christophe Pottier and his archeological team had been working for six weeks, digging from morning to night in the sun of the dry season, searching for any sign that Angkor’s first town had been at this site before the construction of the West Baray water reservoir in the 11th century.

“We were exhausted and wanted to shut down,” Mr Pottier recalls. “Then on the last two days of the excavation, we discovered the first prehistoric skeleton ever found in Angkor’s region.”

Tests performed on the remains found in January 2000 would reveal that the skeleton was nearly two millennia old.

“Frankly, I had not expected to stumble upon such a find on the first dig of the first excavation campaign,” Mr Pottier said.

This would be followed by a series of spectacular discoveries that the French archeologist–one of the rare experts to conduct excavations rather than focusing on the temples’ restoration and study–made at Angkor. Those discoveries would include a 3,800-year-old skeleton found in the West Baray in 2004, and in 2008 the location of the oldest Khmer royal palace.

Mr Pottier’s discoveries in the postwar era were the beginning of the redefinition of how the world understood Angkor, its scale, its population and its ancestry.

An architect and archeologist with the French government’s Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, or EFEO, who has been based in Siem Reap town since 1992, Mr Pottier relocated to Australia this month to join the University of Sydney’s group of Angkor researchers as a visiting professor for a year or two. One of his first goals, he said in an interview before leaving Cambodia, will be to compile a book with Australian archeologist Roland Fletcher on a study they started nearly a decade ago at Angkor.

Mr Pottier’s first visit to Angkor goes back to December 1990 when he was sent by the EFEO to look at the monuments, determine the most pressing needs, and prepare the reopening of the institution’s Cambodia office abandoned in the early 1970s due to the civil war.

“There were three flights per week between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap,” he said of his first visit. “One needed a special authorization to make the trip, and it would take days to get it.”

“The few privileged tourists allowed would land in Siem Reap at 10 am, go to Angkor Wat … the Bayon temple, and leave around 3 pm by the same plane,” Mr Pottier said. Foreigners were not authorized to spend the night, but his group came with the support of Unesco, he said. Mr Pottier spent six weeks in Siem Reap town.

“There was one hour of electricity per day,” he said. “There were five telephones in the whole town: old, black Bakelite ones with a crank handle.”

And the Cambodians in town stayed away from foreigners as if they feared reprisals for making contact, he said. But by the time he made his second visit around February 1992 and moved to Siem Reap town in July 1992, this had completely changed, Mr Pottier said.

“Cambodians were welcoming and we were able to start work.”

Following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements by Cambodia’s political factions and government in October 1991, UN peacekeeping personnel would soon arrive. With soldiers and staff from dozens of countries milling about in Siem Reap town, Mr Pottier said, “It was a little bit like the Far West,” that era of wild sheriffs and outlaws in the US in the 1800s.

The atmosphere became more tense when the Khmer Rouge, who had quickly dropped out of the political pact signed in Paris, tried to derail the 1993 elections and attacked Siem Reap town one month before the vote, he said. Although it only lasted one day from 5 am to about 2 pm, he said, “It was a serious incident: Tanks were brought out and there were bodies in the street.” The election still took place.

The Khmer Rouge remained a threat, however. For some time, archeologists and visitors could only go to the temples in the morning: Some Khmer Rouge groups were ensconced north of Angkor and Cambodian government forces could not maintain surveillance in the afternoon, Mr Pottier said.

“Circulating within Cambodia was far from easy…many roads had been shelled,” he said. “The first time I went from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap town by road, it took two days. We had to go through Battambang because there were Khmer Rouge in the Stung area in Kompong Thom province.”

It was only after Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary and his group had put down their weapons in Pailin in 1996 that calm would start to return to the Siem Reap area, Mr Pottier said.

But instability in the early 1990s had not prevented work at Angkor.

Mr Pottier’s first task in 1992 was to reopen the EFEO’s office and set it up, with the Cambodian government’s authorization, on a parcel of land the institution had acquired along the Siem Reap river in the 1920s, he said.

The EFEO had started restoring Angkor monuments in the early 1900s during the French colonial period and that work continued after Cambodian independence in 1953.

Upon the reopening of the EFEO office in 1992, the institution decided to relaunch two major restoration projects its archeologists had started in the 1960s: the Terrace of the Leper King and the Baphuon temple.

Work began in 1993 with the smaller project, the terrace, so that it could be used to train local restoration teams with the help of 10 Cambodian EFEO workers from the 1960s, said Mr Pottier who became the project’s field archeologist. Restoration of the Baphuon would begin in 1995 managed by EFEO architect Pascal Royere.

Although a modest monument, the terrace still included more than 20,000 stones that had been disassembled in the 1960s with only a quarter of them reassembled.

The project soon turned into a jigsaw puzzle. When the civil war had started to threaten Angkor in the early 1970s, the EFEO had moved its files to Phnom Penh except for records on its ongoing restoration projects, Mr Pottier explained.

“No one imagined,” he said, “that it would end this way, this Khmer Rouge episode…. The EFEO archeologists believed this would last six months or maybe one year and that restoration projects would soon restart.”

The last EFEO archeologists left in early 1972 and, in the chaos of war, all blueprints and notes for the restoration of the terrace and the Baphuon, which was also dismantled, were lost: the only solution in 1993 was to check each stone in the hope of finding a number or indication as to its location in the monuments.

Mr Pottier’s first task, however, was to cut the grass. “There was two meters of vegetation: we could only see the top of the Terrace of the Leper King,” he said.

Moreover, he said, “When you move stone blocks that have been lying around for 20 years in the middle of nowhere, under one block out of five there’s a snake or scorpion nest.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to test them,” Mr Pottier said of the insects. “Scorpion stings [at Angkor] are not mortal but they hurt a bit: the little yellow ones for 24 hours, the big black ones for 48. The centipedes that get as long as 30 centimeters hurt more than scorpions: 72 hours.”

As for snakes, he said, “There are all kinds. One has to be careful but that’s the jungle and what makes it fun.”

Of course with today’s hordes of tourists, snakes and scorpions hardly constitute a threat at Angkor’s royal terraces.

The restoration of the Terrace of the Leper King was completed in 1996. Mr Pottier missed its inauguration in March 1996 as he was in France with his wife Aline for the birth of their first boy, Thomas. He then restored the Terrace of the Elephants, also missing its inauguration in March 1999 because he was in France for the birth of their second son, Nathan.

In December 1999, he and his team excavated near the West Baray, convinced that there had stood the first Angkorian city, heralding, Mr Pottier said, “the start of the Angkorian Brahman culture in the region.”

The 11th-century construction of the West Baray, an 8-by-2 km artificial lake, had led to the relocation of a town as the pyramidal temple now resting at the bottom of the man made lake demonstrates, Mr Pottier said.

His search for this lost town led to the discovery of a skeleton nearly 2,000 years old in January 2000, and to the realization that Angkor had been built at a site occupied for millennia, he said.

In May 2004, taking advantage of the fact that the dry season had emptied the West Baray, Mr Pottier and his team started excavating the bottom of the reservoir, this time finding a 3,800-year-old skeleton.

The following year, the West Baray being dried out again, he and his team returned and discovered about 10 graves as well as pottery fragments, animal and fish bones, and traces of plants.

The 15-day excavation was a race against rain, the archeologists wanting to collect as much data and artifacts as possible before the reservoir would fill again, Mr Pottier said.

When work started, a rumor spread among Cambodians that the skeleton found in 2004 had been that of a 2.5-meter Angkorian king who should be honored, archeologist Koeung Vireak had explained at the time.

As a result, about 25,000 people rushed to the site as if for a festival, some bringing along candles and incense to pay homage to the ancestor of Angkor. Police had to be brought in to monitor the crowd. “It was pure madness,” Mr Pottier recalled. “At times there were so many people that it was scary.”

Always in search of Angkor’s first town, in 2004 Mr Pottier and his team had also begun excavating at the Roluos group of monuments southeast of today’s Siem Reap town. Four years later, they uncovered the oldest royal palace ever found in Cambodia, and the first one to be built at Angkor.

“We had been looking for a royal palace without even knowing how a royal palace might look like: it was more or less a ‘Mission Impossible,'” Mr Pottier noted. Data collected indicated that the palace was probably built by Jayavarman II–considered the first king of the Angkorian era–in his capital at Roluos in the 770s rather than in 802 as previously believed, he said.

During his many years in Cambodia, Mr Pottier had also been exploring the region in search of evidence of Angkorian structures.

“The only overall map of the region dated from 1911,” he said. “Descriptions for locations were vague, such as: ‘two hours on horseback in that direction, there is a mound with a tower in ruins.'”

Using aerial maps available but especially by scouting on foot, he discovered that, in addition to the well-known monuments in and around the walled city of Angkor Thom, there had been more modest temples spread out throughout the area in an organized city pattern.

This was a major discovery since archeologists had not so far grasped the fact that that the city of Angkor had been so vast. Mr Pottier’s find contributed to setting the protected zone of the archeological park at 401 square km.

This research led him in the early 2000s to launch the Greater Angkor Project with University of Sydney’s archeologist Roland Fletcher to study urban development at Angkor over the centuries, a city now believed to have had a population of 1 million at one point.

Working in cooperation with the Apsara Authority–the Cambodian government agency managing the Angkor park–their research over the next four years would focus on the last period of the Angkorian capital, the city’s decline in the 15th century and the situation afterwards, Mr Pottier said. Although conjunctures abound, little is known as to exactly when Cambodia’s capital moved out of Siem Reap province.

Mr Pottier was born on March 7, 1966, in Mayenne, a region of France where, he said, “There are more cows than people.” He had been studying and working in Paris when he moved to Cambodia at 26.

Looking back on his 18 years of living in Siem Reap town, Mr Pottier says he remembers the 1990s’ first mobile phones and fax machines carried in suitcases now considered museum pieces. While one lived somewhat cut off from the outside world, he said, “Siem Reap offered a wonderful quality of life even if we had to wait until the end of the 1990s for the arrival of pools and luxury hotels.”

Development has come at a price, Mr Pottier points out. “We gained facilities, electricity, water system–although not everywhere–hotels and restaurants. There now are activities and excitement. But there also has been alteration of the environment: increased population density, sewage problems and pollution.”

Talking about his profession, he said that one of the aspects he loves best is the teamwork.

“Archeology is not something one does alone,” he said. “You may start a job with your little problems in mind, but the only way to accomplish anything is by working with others. And [at Angkor] others mean French, Cambodian, Australian, American and other people.”

“It’s not Indiana Jones who goes alone in the jungle: That’s a myth.”


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