Findings by Japanese archaeologist Miyatsuka Yoshito suggest that there may have been a pre-Angkorian civilization led by female warriors in what is now northwestern Cambodia dating back to the first century AD.
Phum Snay, a burial site in Banteay Meanchey province that lies 70 km west of Siem Reap town, was first discovered in 1999 by workers digging National Road 6. The find inadvertently prompted multiple scientific excavations, as well as a frenzy of looting over the next several years at the site, which covers roughly 3 km by 4 km.
Miyatsuka, president and owner of the Miyatsuka Institute of Archaeology, along with a team of 10 Japanese archaeologists and analysts, 18 Cambodian archaeology students and 50 locals, began excavating five different locations at Phum Snay in January 2007 .
Not all of the 45 bodies his team has unearthed thus far were intact, but Miyatsuka said that 70 percent of them appear to be females, many of whom were quite large—one measured just shy of 170 centimeters—and highly militarized.
“They were buried with iron swords,” he said, adding that the findings, which he believes date to between the 1st and 5th century AD, suggest women were revered, while men played supporting roles, as was the case in other civilizations in China and Japan at that time.
Much research has focused on the renowned temple-builders from the 9th to the 15th century in Cambodia, but relatively little is known about the peoples who existed before Angkor and may have contributed to its rise.
Miyatsuka said a man-made moat around the site suggests those at Phum Snay had an advanced water control system resembling Neak Pean in the Angkor temple complex, which similarly provides evidence of a Hindu influence.
Unlike the major ancient civilizations in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia and along the Yellow River in China—which were based around growing wheat and raising sheep—people at Phum Snay cultivated rice and fished, he said.
Miyatsuka said it is possible the site was the capital of Funan, the Indianized kingdom more commonly thought to have been located around the Mekong delta at roughly the same time.
Several of the other findings Miyatsuka shared Monday morning during his lecture at the Royal University of Phnom Penh suggest linkages with neighboring countries and peoples.
Of the hundreds of artifacts uncovered, many of the bronze artifacts appear to have come from China, some of the beads may have come from India or Tibet, and polished pottery from Thailand.
The two types of skulls found at the site, one long and narrow and another rounded, provide evidence of migrants from China in the case of the former and perhaps migrants from India in the case of the latter, he said.
Most of the people buried at Phum Snay had the teeth between their front and canine teeth extracted, giving them what would have been a striking fanged smile bearing resemblance to a practice in southern China and Japan.
Archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly, who has led three Phum Snay excavations, said that while his team found some females among the more than 20 burials they uncovered between 2001 and 2003, he did not find evidence of militarized women.
“The males were buried with caches of arrowheads, and often more than one weapon…. Women with weapons is interesting,” O’Reilly said, adding that he hoped further research would look deeper into the findings.
“[Phum Snay] shows extremely interesting social and political developments in Cambodia…which probably has something to do with the rise of the state of Angkor,” he said, adding that the other, far less magnificent, legacy of Phum Snay has been the looting that ensued after its discovery.
“[It] sparked the conflagration of looting that now grips Cambodia,” O’Reilly said, adding that archaeologists’ interest in Iron Age Cambodia is crucial at this juncture.
“We need a concerted effort before everything is gone,” he said.
Thuy Chanthourn, an archaeology researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia who also led a Phum Snay excavation in 2002, said Monday that he does not believe there is conclusive evidence of a culture of female warriors in northwestern Cambodia.
He also said that while there are admittedly similarities between the Funan kingdom and artifacts found at Phum Snay, it is too soon to discern what that connection indicates.
“The cultural material is related,” he said, referring to pottery and carnelian beads.
“But to me, Phum Snay is just the burial site for military people,” he said, adding that there have been no conclusive dates from his earlier excavations, though he believes the site dates to between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.
While he welcomes the work of the Japanese archaeologists, Thuy Chanthourn said he hopes they will collaborate more closely with Cambodian experts in the future.
Miyatsuka said that his preliminary findings are based on his interpretation of data, and that it has been difficult to compare his findings with earlier excavations due to a lack of published material.
Miyatsuka’s work at Phum Snay, which he said is funded by the Japanese government, will likely carry on through 2011.