Angkor Borei, the cradle of Khmer civilization, may be older than anyone realized, according to preliminary findings by a team of scientists.
Bones, pottery and other artifacts unearthed at the ancient walled city in Takeo province indicate a civilization flourished at the site as many as 1,000 years earlier than suspected.
In addition, a segment of earth formed into a mound yielded about 40 human skeletons, ceremoniously buried with artifacts, which is the first cemetery ever excavated in the region, scientists said.
“This is extraordinary. Nothing like this has been uncovered in mainland Southeast Asia,” said Miriam Stark, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii in the US.
The cemetery, which appears to date back more than 2,000 years, indicates the Khmer civilization was well-advanced before meeting traders from India and the Roman empire in the early centuries of the Christian era.
The findings are significant because researchers had previously believed that the flowering of Khmer civilization was sparked by that foreign exposure. The new data seems to say Khmer society was developing well before that cultural cross-pollination occurred. “Complex society developed in southern Cambodia prior to the arrival of Indian influence, and continued at Angkor Borei into the Angkorean period,” Stark said.
Scientists were necessarily vague about dates in announcing their findings Tuesday at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, noting that many bones and artifacts must undergo tests that won’t be completed for months.
Angkor Borei is being excavated jointly by the Royal University of Fine Arts and the University of Hawaii.
The ancient city now taking shape under the patient probing of diggers and researchers is a walled and moated fortress that corresponds to descriptions in Chinese reports from the third and sixth centuries AD.
Such cities housed wealthy rulers, artisans, stone carvers and metalsmiths, part of a rich empire the Chinese called Funan that stretched across the Mekong Delta from Vietnam to the Cambodian heartland between the first and sixth centuries AD.“This is stage one. Stage two is the Khmer empire,” said Stark, who is co-directing the Lower Mekong Archeological Project with her Hawaii colleague Bion Griffin and Professor Chuch Phoeurn of the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Initial findings include:
•The massive wall that surrounded the city—portions were as high as 8 meters—was built in two stages. An earlier earthwork was capped by newer brickwork. Remnants can still be seen today.
•The city was most likely connected by a canal network of about 90 km to Oc Eo, a Funan-era site in southern Vietnam where researchers have unearthed Roman coins from the first century AD.
•Angkor Borei was probably first occupied in the fifth century BC, with its population peaking in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. It covered at least 300 hectares.
•Archeologists have found at least 13 collapsed brick structures that contained statues and may have been funerary monuments.
The research project, which has been under way for five years, has also trained more than 25 Cambodian archeology graduates from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Princess Bopha Devi, minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said she is delighted with the results and hopes this project will serve as a model for others.
Such projects are important for the preservation of Khmer culture, agreed Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuddh, secretary of state for the ministry. He said young Cambodians must learn from the past if they are to have a promising future.