A group of armed looters searching with metal detectors have been digging around Preah Vihear province’s 11th-century Preah Khan temple for ancient artifacts, an official and a watchdog director said Sunday.
Looters with 10 metal detectors have been digging into the ground since the Khmer New Year in April, searching for copper artifacts near the temple’s massive walls, which enclose an 800-by-1,200 meter area, said Nov Sokuna, deputy director of the provincial culture and fine arts department.
Preah Khan, also known as the Bakan, has Cambodia’s largest temple enclosure, according to Dougald O’Reilly, founder and director of the NGO Heritage Watch, who said Sunday that he had just concluded a trip to the site following an anonymous tip about the looters received last week.
“There were armed guys dressed in everyday clothes, not uniformed men, and they were using metal detectors to find subsurface remains,” O’Reilly said.
The Bakan was previously looted in 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003 and 2005, leaving gaping holes where many of its beautiful stone carvings used to be, he said.
“The only thing that distinguishes it is really how decimated it is,” O’Reilly said.
“What we were doing up there was photo-documenting all of that looting” to inform customs and law enforcement agencies so they can look for the plundered artifacts, he added.
There has been no large-scale excavation of the area where the looters were reportedly digging, but the roof tiles dug up and left behind by the looters suggest that the area searched may have been a residential area. Until recently there was a Ministry of Culture guard at the site, but he had neither a radio nor a weapon, O’Reilly said.
Provincial authorities are now cooperating with local police and military officers to establish a task force and a guard post at the site.