Oldest Angkor Site May Have Been Found

During the last two weeks of May, the archeological team worked as fast as it could. The Cambodian and French experts knew the opportunity to investigate this unusual site at Angkor in Siem Reap province may not arise again for years.

The race was on to collect as much data as possible before the rain and underground water levels made it impossible to continue.

But the water rose and tests on the deeper ground layers had to be dropped. But, enough evidence was accumulated to show that the site, located in the middle of the Western Baray, may turn out to be the oldest settlement yet found at Angkor and one of only a handful of prehistoric sites that have so far been identified in Cam­bodia.

Pearls, semi-precious stone and beads started circulating in the Angkor region about 2,000 years ago, but none were found at the site, called Koh Ta Meas, said Christophe Pottier, a member of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, the French government agency that has been studying Angkor for more than a century.

Iron objects, which are thought to have appeared in Southeast Asia around the 4th century BC, were also absent—another indication that the site, could be as much as 3,000 years old, Pottier said.

No conclusions can be fully drawn until results come in from carbon-dating tests on organic samples, analysis of soil and pottery shards, and DNA tests on bone fragments, Pottier said.

All the same, “this shows that the Angkor region was habited well before the Angkorian era [which began in the 9th century],” said Ros Borath, deputy director general in charge of Monument and Archeology for Apsara Authority, the government agency managing Angkor.

Very little is known of life in Cambodia, before and even during Angkor. “All we have are hypothesis,” said Ros Borath, adding that was why he agreed when Pottier on a “diagnosis” operation on the site in early May.

When work began at the site in the Western Baray in May it was already an issue of time as the area would not remain dry for long. As an 8-by-2 km, artificial lake built in the 11th century as part of Angkor’s irrigation system it is filled by rain, the Siem Reap river and underground water, said Pottier.

The last time a fairly “dry” rainy season left the baray’s bed exposed was in 1998, he said. Then Pottier had checked 12 locations in the baray, and it looked promising. The pieces of earthenware he found at Koh Ta Meas intrigued him—they were “unusual,” unlike anything he had seen so far in the Angkor region in which he had been working since 1992.

In early May, the baray dried up again. Pottier revisited his 12 sites but still could not identify the shards from Koh Ta Meas. This suggested that the site was older than the others, and warranted further tests before the water returned. Expecting water back no later than June 1, they had no time to lose.

Work at the site began on May 20 with EFEO surveyor Uong Savana mapping a 60,000-square-meter area, using more than 800 markers. This revealed a slight elevation with some sort of platform in a circular shape. Although it is less than 65-centimeters high, this may be one of the few structures not completely flattened when the baray was built, said Pottier.

On May 21, a team conducted a one-day operation to collect and catalogue all possible fragments on the surface. The first meter of soil samples looked promising. Apsara authorized further work and on May 27 excavation proceeded at three locations.

Digs at the highest and lowest levels produced few results. But at the middle location, the team uncovered the full skeleton of an adult surrounded by jars of offerings, with a hog head at his or her feet. This means that people had domestic animals and buried their dead, Pottier said.

He had discovered only one other cemetery at Angkor, but more recent—located near the baray, it had been used between the 2nd and the 6th centurys, before the Indian influence made the Khmer switch to cremation.

Koh Ta Meas’ pottery is similar to shards found at the prehistoric sites of Samrong Sen south of Kompong Thom, and at Mlu Prei in Preah Vihear province, Pottier said.

Now the site is underwater again and further work will have to wait until the next dry year, unless work carried out at the baray gives access to the site, he said.

Results clearly show the importance of controlling development at Angkor, Ros Borath said. “The soil contains pages of history that have not yet been leafed through.” It also proves that the bed of canals, rivers and even the Tonle Sap lake may contain invaluable information on Cambodia’s past, he said.

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