New Exhibit Explores Jar Burial Sites of the Cardamoms

For 10 years, a team of researchers has been studying a little-known group of people who lived in the Cardamom Mountains centuries ago and honored their dead by putting their remains in jars that they then placed high up on rock ledges.

“Living in the Shadow of Angkor,” an exhibition opening today at the National Museum, is the first time that the public will have an opportunity to see the jars and learn about the people who used them, whose origins are still poorly understood.

A re-creation of a mountain ledge burial site on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
A re-creation of a mountain ledge burial site on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“We cannot tell which ethnic minority they are. We can only get a sense of their culture through the funeral ritual that they used,” said Nancy Beavan, a carbon-dating specialist from the University of Otago in New Zealand, who heads the research team.

Artifacts and bone remains the team found date from the 15th century through the 17th century, a period during which Cambodia was going through great upheavals, the powerful Angkorian empire having become but a memory.

It is not known whether political events in the Mekong and Tonle Sap valleys affected remote communities high in the mountains. But as Ms. Beavan said Thursday, “Research around the world shows that highland cultures are very much removed from lowland politics.”

Still, those communities were trading with other people in the region. Glass beads discovered at their burial sites in the mountains came from China, India and Sumatra.

In addition, the ceramic water jars discovered at those sites are the same as those found at a 15th century shipwreck off the coast of Koh Kong province. “The people in the mountains might have had trade connections with the maritime economies in the Gulf of Thailand at that time,” Ms. Beavan said. This is why part of the exhibition consists of jars from the shipwreck site, which was discovered in 2005.

The exhibition’s central display consists of a full-size model of a burial site complete with the jars and wooden coffins the Cardamon communities used for their dead. It was built by the research team so that visitors could see what the jar burial sites on mountain ledges looked like, Ms. Beavan said.

One panel at the exhibit shows what a man interred at one of the sites might have looked like five centuries ago. His portrait was reconstructed by a forensic lab in the U.S.

Another panel explains that while little is known of these people, Ms. Beavan’s team has been calling them Khmer Daeum, or original Khmer. This is an expression used by French researcher Marie Alexandrine Martin, who spent 20 years researching the people of the Cardamoms from the mid-1960s through the 1980s.

“Living in the Shadow of Angkor” runs through December 26.

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