Villagers intent on making a few baht are systematically looting a major archeological site in northwest Cambodia that could shed light on how the Angkorian empire evolved.
“They are taking everything,” said Gerd Albrecht, a lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts school of archeology who made an emergency trip to the site last month.
Albrecht said virtually every family in the village of Phum Snay in Banteay Meanchey province appeared to be digging up graves in a prehistoric cemetery discovered last March.
The site is about 23 km from the provincial capital of Sisophon, and lies just north of Route 6.
An area about 1 square km is so riddled with pits it looks like a bomb site, he said. The cemetery sits at the edge of what could be a huge man-made mound, remnants of a civilization dating from 600 BC or even earlier.
Such a mound would contain invaluable clues to the roots of Khmer civilization, showing how people were living well before the influx of Indian or other cultures, he said.
The villagers are rummaging through the graves in hopes of finding beads, semi-precious stones and gold, which they sell for small amounts to illegal traders—in the process destroying information about the roots of Khmer culture that is far more valuable to scholars.
He said archeology students have spotted what appears to be artifacts from that period being offered for sale at Phnom Penh’s Phsar Tuol Tumpong, also called the Russian Market.
“We are afraid, if something isn’t done, there won’t be much left,” he said. If the site were protected and excavated properly, he said, “it would be by far the biggest prehistoric project in Cambodia.”
Although officials from the Ministry of Culture vowed last June to assign military police to protect the site, Albrecht said the villagers are digging at will.
“There is nothing protecting the site,” he said flatly. “The international community needs to know about this. Not a lot of money is needed to protect this site.”
Calls to the proper authorities did not seem to help much.
Sok Sareth, Banteay Meanchey police chief, said his men have told the villagers not to dig, but some just ignore them. “Sometimes, they dig in their houses, on their own land,” he said. “It is difficult to stop them. They are very poor.”
Chuch Phoeurn, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he doesn’t think the site is being seriously damaged. “If the district authorities are keen in stopping those activities, digging will stop,” he said.
Albrecht said he and his team tried to explain to the villagers that what they are doing is not only against the law, but is destroying Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
That’s fine, they were told, but people have to eat.
“They said they are very poor and they need the money,” he said. “They said if the government wants them to stop, the government needs to get them jobs.”
An archeological dig could provide not only good jobs but long-lasting prosperity for the community, he said, but it’s unclear if one can be organized soon enough to save what is left.
Albrecht is a lecturer with the German Academic Exchange Service, which has been training archeologists at the university since 1996. He said the site certainly contains relics dating from 600 BC or earlier.
Prehistoric sites have received little attention in Cambodia, in part because international scholars have been so bedazzled by the beauties of the Angkor Wat complex. But sites like Phum Snay can provide a great deal of information about early cultures, he said.
Burial sites are extremely rich in artifacts like jewelry, pottery, iron tools and other cultural items buried with the dead. But while such items are priceless to scholars, they don’t bring that much on the market, he said.
Heng Sophady, Albrecht’s colleague, said a Cambodian “middleman” at Phum Snay told him he made about 10,000 baht ($230) for two weeks’ work, buying looted items from the villagers and selling them to Thai traders.
Albrecht is eager for teams to begin examining the large mound, measuring about 3 km by 3 km, that adjoins the cemetery. At its highest, it measures more than 10 meters above the surrounding flood plain.
And while it might be a natural formation, it looks a great deal like mounds that have been excavated in Thailand. Such mounds typically reveal a great deal of information, such as what people ate, how they lived, and how their technical skills evolved.
He said the sheer abundance of materials already recovered from the graves indicates this may be a site settled by farming peoples for a very long time.
“There are an incredible number of pieces scattered around the area,” he said, including iron weapons, hoes and bracelets.
It is about 30 km from Banteay Chhmar, the 800-year-old temple that was so ruthlessly looted that last year it was placed on the World Monument Fund’s list of 100 most endangered landmarks.
Albrecht has begun a one-man campaign to alert the international archeology community to Phum Snay’s peril, e-mailing scholars he hopes will begin work at the site to help protect it.
One likely prospect was Charles Higham, an archeologist in New Zealand who excavated one of the Thai mounds with “tremendous” results, said Albrecht.
He hopes to convince Higham to switch his operations to Cambodia. “I was aghast” to hear of the looting, was Higham’s e-mailed response. “Obviously, this site needs urgent attention.”
On Saturday, Albrecht reported that Higham has cleared his slate so that he can begin a project at Phum Snay. “All he needs now,” said Albrecht, “is for the Ministry of Culture to extend a formal invitation.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)