Cambodian history will remain shrouded in mystery if looting of ancient burial sites continues unabated, experts said Tuesday.
Graves illegally excavated in and around Oddar Meanchey province’s Banteay Ampil district are about 1,900 years old and may lead to the loss of an important site if no action is soon taken, said Dougald O’Reilly, an archaeologist and director of the NGO Heritage Watch, who visited the area last week.
Government officials last week reported widespread destruction and looting of ancient graves over a large area in the district.
“Graves are our historical heritage,” said Uong Von, director of the Ministry of Culture’s Heritage Department. “If [villagers] dig them up, we lose our history.”
Both O’Reilly and Charmaine Williams, project coordinator for CARE Cambodia in Oddar Meanchey, said that looting in Banteay Ampil district has been going on since 2000.
Nim Son of Angkor Conservation in Siem Reap said last week that one of the sites excavated may stretch over 1.5 km.
Uong Von lamented that villagers kept looting despite the ministry’s efforts to dissuade them. “We stopped them a year ago, but now they still do it.”
He also blamed local officials for not reporting the looting, and called for those illegally excavating grave sites to be prosecuted.
But O’Reilly said that those creating demand for looted objects—rather than impoverished villagers—should face charges.
“Prosecution should be aimed at those who actively encourage the destruction of heritage and profit from the selling of Cambodia’s heritage,” he wrote.
Charmaine said that a combination of poverty and ignorance likely pushed the villagers to loot.
“These villages, they’re incredibly poor,” she said, describing how they are essentially islands in the rainy season, with waist deep water separating them from the outside world. “The quality of the soil is poor. They are susceptible to flood and drought. And if they have land, it’s often not enough to feed their family.”
Archaeologists and other scholars have long been drawn to the Angkorian-era temples, which still are painstakingly studied and restored. But very little is known about the people of two millennia ago who would eventually create the Khmer Empire in the 9th century and dominate the region.