Banteay Meanchey provincial military police on Monday confiscated what they say is the northwest’s biggest-ever stash of centuries-old artifacts that were illegally excavated from archaeological sites.
Several hundred ancient Khmer objects were seized from five different houses and one suspect was detained during the Monday evening raids, officials said.
Among the seized items were tools made of ceramic and iron, eight large water jars, vases, a gong, 12 Buddha statues, beads and kettles.
“This was the largest operation we have ever done to seize such a large amount of artifacts from illegal traffickers,” said provincial Military Police Commander Roth Sreang, who led the raid with a force of 25 men.
Officials believe the artifacts came from two historical sites—Phnom Thudong in Svay Chek district and Bantaot Boh village in Preah Net Preah district. The objects are thought to come from several different historical periods. Some are more than 2,500 years old, while others are believed to date from the 12th century, officials said.
The unofficial excavation and looting of historical sites, especially cemeteries, have reportedly been increasing nationwide. In March, the government issued a directive banning excavations at historical sites across the country, but such activity is difficult to monitor in remote areas.
The raid was conducted by a joint force of cultural and court officials in two villages in O’Ambel commune, Serei Saophoan district.
Roth Sreang said Him Rom, owner of one of the raided houses, was detained for interrogation. “This is a big blow to the trade in our priceless antiques,” he said.
Heng Tim, director of the province’s Department of Culture, said the police operation would help drive down the black market for cultural objects.
“In the past, the five houses we raided were the biggest traders in the region,” he said. “They collected antiques from the poor and sold the items to foreigners or exported them to Thai markets.”
During the raid, police seized a scanner used to detect underground objects, which they believe was given to a villager by a Thai antique buyer, Heng Tim said.
“Here, people just go digging, hoping to get lucky. It’s hard to control the digging because people dig at night or even during the rain.”
Villagers are more than willing to dig up and sell important artifacts for a few dollars each, he said. Many villagers don’t realize the objects have cultural significance; others are too poor to care.
The traders sell the objects at a significant profit. Across the border, a large jar, for example, will fetch about $12, Heng Tim said.
Archaeologist Michel Tranet, an undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Culture, praised the crackdown but said much more needs to be done.
Government directives aimed at stopping the artifacts trade have not been fully enforced, and digging continues largely uncontrolled, he said. “Some officials in the local authorities are behind some of the digging,” he said.
Tranet, who is writing a book about early Khmer traditions, said tools and housewares were often buried in graves along with ancient Khmers, who believed in reincarnation.
Heng Tim gave a different view, saying tools were buried underground because the Khmers often had to flee warfare and hide their possessions.
On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng briefly visited the military police barracks to inspect the confiscated antiques on his way to open a school in the province.
Him Rom, 44, the only person arrested in connection with the artifacts, maintained her innocence in an interview Tuesday.
“I am not guilty. I am no longer a trader,” she said. “They arrested me because they found I have four to 10 pieces in my home.”
Him Rom said she used to make money from buying and selling antiques and was arrested once before, but has quit the business and now raises goats.
The large-scale looting of artifacts is depriving Cambodians of their history, Etienne Clement, country representative for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said recently.
“With artifacts such as pottery, bronze and small stones, it is not so much the object that has value…as much as the context in which it is discovered has value for historians,” Clement said. “Khmer history is still quite little- known.”
Consumer education must be part of any attempts to combat cultural trafficking, he noted. “There are people who buy pieces of pottery here, including foreigners, without a clue [of its significance]—they just think it looks nice,” Clement said.
(Additional reporting by Molly Ball)