The huge, 3,000-year-old bowl that visitors will soon be able to view at the National Museum in Phnom Penh bears little resemblance to the dirty shards that archaeologists unearthed at Angkor several years ago.
Pottery found at excavation sites usually have been crushed and flattened by the weight of soil accumulated over millennia. An artifact may end up in more than 600 pieces that must be carefully collected, studied and catalogued before a conservator can start piecing them together to recreate the original object.
An exhibition now being set up in the National Museum’s north wing will help people understand the process that occurs between the original discovery of an artifact and the restored piece found in a museum.
In order to make people truly grasp how researchers draw conclusions from what, more or less, amounts to digging holes in the ground, the exhibition’s organizers have decided to painstakingly recreate an excavation site.
The exhibition “Angkor’s Ancestors” will focus on digs conducted in Angkor’s West Baray when especially dry seasons in 2004 and 2005 left the water basin empty.
Working in haste before rainy-season downpours could start filling the baray, a team of Cambodian and French archaeologists, paleoanthropologists and around 60 specialized workers found one skeleton in a 3,000-year-old burial site in 2004, and uncovered fragments of 58 persons in 22 burial sites in 2005, said archaeologist Christophe Pottier of the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, who was in charge of the dig.
The museum and EFEO team is now reconstructing a quarter of the 2005 excavation site: a 25-square-meter section complete with the actual human remains and pottery fragments uncovered at the site.
“Even the earth comes from Angkor,” Pottier said. “We brought 5 cubic meters of earth in a special truck because Phnom Penh’s soil is no good. It may be good to plant carrots or cauliflower, but for us…there’s too much clay and sand, not the right texture for compacting—unlike our good soil at Angkor,” said Pottier, who has worked at Angkor since 1992.
The exhibition will also include 2,000-year-old artifacts discovered at the village site of Prei Khmeng in the early 2000s, he added.
Rebuilding the excavation site is no easy task, said Sum Sang, an archaeologist who worked on the original dig and is now involved in its reconstruction.
Each detail is checked against the series of photos taken at the site and detailed drawings mapping out the location and depth at which every artifact was found, he said. “Still, measuring in order to place them as they were found is very difficult” at a site built from scratch, he said.
And no matter how meticulously the fragments were photographed, some gaps must be filled as to the position of some pieces, said Chap Sopheara, a ceramic conservator at the museum, as she was placing pieces of a vase in the demonstration dig. Photos tend to be taken from directly above an object’s fragments, and one must deduce the position of pieces underneath those in the photos, she said.
An elevated walkway built over the faux excavation site will take visitors to the second section of the exhibition, which will contain samples of the pieces found at the sites with information written in Khmer, French and English on researchers’ techniques. This will include displays on ornaments and tools and explanation panels on Carbon-14 and DNA-dating tests.
Also exhibited will be the skulls of a few individuals unearthed at the burial sites who were found to have been suffering from diseases, said Fabrice Demeter, a paleoanthropologist with the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, France’s natural history museum in Paris.
A number of them were afflicted with thalassemia, which modifies red blood cells, he said. “Being a carrier of this genetic disease enables a person to become resistant to malaria,” he said. The fact that so many people whose remains were discovered at the site had this disease indicates that the region was plagued with malaria 3,000 years ago, as only those resistant to the disease lived there, Demeter said.
Some skulls will also be exhibited to illustrate cultural practices such as the extraction of some teeth, a custom prevalent throughout Southeast Asia at the time, he added.
The skulls were painstakingly rebuilt and strengthened with a restoration product adapted to Cambodia’s climate and humidity, said Belgian restorer Adeline Beuken.
A display on archaeozoology will also be set up to make visitors aware that researchers often find only minuscule bone fragments to use to identify animals, said museologist Evelise Bruneau.
A documentary filmed during the excavation and made with the support of the Ministry of Culture will also be presented at the exhibition, which should be fully in place towards the end of the month, Pottier said.
“Angkor’s Ancestors” will officially open in early April and on view for four to six months, museum Director Hab Touch said.
Such an exhibition is part of the museum’s mandate, Hab Touch said. “A museum should present to the public new discoveries in terms of history and archaeology,” he said.
Moreover, the exhibition is giving the museum’s staff the opportunity to explore new display concepts and approaches, which will benefit the museum in the future, he said.
The museum will organize seminars on archaeology as well as on prehistoric and pre-Angkorian Cambodia during the exhibition to help people better understand those periods, he added.