Looting Still Threatens Cambodia’s Artifacts

Cambodia’s heritage has long been the victim of its history, as looters have taken advantage of war and instability to pillage the country to satisfy the lucrative international art market.

So even as officials and activists celebrate Friday’s return of two priceless sandstone heads from the Honlulu Academy of Arts, there is an increasing awareness that peace has brought a new threat to artifacts which are scientific as well as cultural treasures.

Although monuments garner the most attention from tourists and cultural activists, it is the small trinkets of old which often have scientific value, and those small artifacts are disappearing.

“It’s code red,” Royal University of Fine Arts archaeologist Dou­gald O’Reilly said. “The situation is so critical here in Cambodia.”

Peace in Cambodia has coincided with a boom in the so-called “exotic art” market, in which an­cient artifacts reap billions of dollars worldwide.

“People forget about the trade in the ordinary stuff,” O’Reilly said. “I mean, they have whole magazines just devoted to beads.”

O’Reilly speaks from experience. He has watched with horror in the last year as an Iron Age site at Phoum Snay village in Siem Reap province was wiped out by looting.

“It’s like a charnal house,” O’Reilly said. “It’s just gone.”

Workers digging a road in the village came upon the site, which they at first believed was a Khmer Rouge mass grave. Vil­lagers soon discovered the site was full of ancient trinkets, including iron weapons, bronze helmets and Iron Age jewelry.

By the time O’Reilly and his team arrived at the site in February of 2001, an estimated 80 percent of it was already dug up and gone. When his colleagues returned to the site earlier this year, it was essentially ruined.

“They had kids playing golf with the skulls,” he said. “What a loss.”

Looting has been a problem for decades, particularly in post-colonial countries. But Cambodia has been among the world’s most victimized lands in the past deacde, along with Mali, Guatemala, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru and Ecudaor, according to Unesco country representative Etienne Clement said.

Campaigns against stolen art have succeeded in helping to protect monuments, Clement said. The creation of a heritage police force in Angkor Archaeological Park and a 1999 bilateral agreement with the US, where many looted artifacts wind up, are encouraging signs  “I’m hoping the worst has passed” for Cambodia’s monuments, he said.

But It seems the problems of protecting small artifacts are just beginning. “We know a lot about the monuments, but very little about what’s in the ground,” Clement said.

Because it has spent the last three decades in conflict, Cambodia is one of the world’s great untapped archaeological countries, O’Reilly said.

“This is one of the major hotspots for archaeologicial research,” O’Reilly said. “There’s so much work to do. It’s incredible.”

Small artifacts help tell the big story of a civilization, O’Reilly said. From relics, scientists can develop theories about ancient peoples’ daily routines, eating habits and burial rites.

But private dealers and collectors also value small artifacts, and publicity about a site’s archaeological value encourages looting, O’Reilly said.

“These people also rely on us because it increases the value of their looted stuff,” O’Reilly said. “They say, ‘Oh, Phoum Snay—I’ve got some stuff from Phoum Snay.’”

O’Reilly speaks of advertisements in the Bangkok aiport which read: “Buy your own museum.” He tells of an American man who looted beads by the cartful from Phoum Snay.  When O’Reilly confronted the man at an airport,  “[the man] asked me when I was going to publish.”

The root of the problem is poverty. A poor Cambodian usually makes about $1 for a single looted trinket, O’Reilly said. That is serious money in a country where the average income is around $280 per year.

“It’s hard to criticize these people because they’re extremely poor,” O’Reilly said. “[Looting] is easy to get away with. People aren’t going to get killed looting a temple, as they are trafficking heroin.”

International Council of Museums chairman of the Asia-Pacific executive board Amareswar Galla agrees the pillaging can’t be stopped until poverty is eased.

“One of my concerns is it doesn’t matter how many regulations you have, if you don’t have local benefits…they won’t participate,” Galla said. “You’ve got to reanimate the region.”

Smaller artifacts can be sold directly to private dealers in Thailand. Larger artifacts usually head to major art markets like Singapore, Hong Kong or Switzerland, and from there find their way into museums or private collections.

Relics change hands so quickly collectors have no way of knowing if the artifact is looted, Galla said.

O’Reilly isn’t as forgiving. He says auction houses and dealers are still too willing to turn a blind eye because of the profits they can make.

Cambodia’s archaeological potential remains huge, O’Reilly said. But he fears science will lose the race against the profiteers.

“It’s a world problem,” O’Reilly said. “We’ve got to get up there and stop this looting.”


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