On a series of rock ledges situated high in the Cardamom Mountains sit collections of earthenware jars containing human remains, the only known link to an enigmatic ancient culture that has long intrigued archaeologists.
For more than a decade, researchers have been studying ancient jar and coffin burial sites in the eastern ranges of the mountainous region that stretches across Koh Kong and Kompong Speu provinces.
Yet little is known about the society that interred its dead on these remote, exposed ledges between the 15th and 17th centuries, a practice not seen elsewhere in Cambodia. While these highland people appeared to have thrived in the late Angkorian period—during which the empire declined and fell—their unique funerary customs indicate that their culture was wholly removed from that of lowland Khmer peoples of the time, who largely favored cremation.
In a new study released Tuesday as part of the “Living in the Shadow of Angkor” project, which aims to broaden understanding of Cambodian history outside the well-examined Angkorian period, researchers reveal several new discoveries made at one of the 10 burial grounds that have been uncovered since 2001.
The site at Phnom Khnang Peung is the largest found to date, housing 40 earthenware jars that contain the intermingled remains of up to six people, and three intact coffins, which researchers believe hold the remains of more than 150 people in total.
For the first time at any of the sites, animal bones—specifically those of dogs and pigs—were found entombed alongside those of humans. The remains also revealed evidence of ritual tooth ablation, in which healthy teeth are deliberately extracted.
Nancy Beavan, a senior research fellow at New Zealand’s University of Otago, who led the research team, said a fellow academic was currently completing a study on the possible meaning of the tooth removal, which has previously been recorded in a number of prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia, as well as in Mondolkiri province at the turn of the 20th century. As for the animal bones, she said, they seem to have been interred intentionally.
“Animal remains in graves can mean a lot of things, but you have to know more about other aspects of the culture to tease these things out…. Was it part of the staging around the final burial ceremony or was it that these people had more status? We don’t know, because we don’t know who prepared these burial jars or why,” Ms. Beavan said.
However, researchers have been able to trace the origins of the jars themselves, which Ms. Beavan says is evidence of the highlanders’ connection with maritime trade routes. The vast majority of the jars are believed to be Mae Nam Noi ceramics, fired in kilns in the area of Ayutthaya, Thailand, and transported to the Gulf of Thailand via the Chao Phraya River.
Another unique aspect at the Phnom Khnang Peung site is the existence of three Angkorian jars—two of which contained remains—compared to just one at each of the other burial grounds.
“This has always been a mystery as we go through the sites,” Ms. Beavan said. “Something that really sticks out is that they are so intent on collecting and using these Mae Nam Noi jars, but why is there only one Angkorian jar?”
“Now we are even more intrigued,” she said of the existence of the three Angkorian jars, saying that they could possibly hold the remains of individuals of a higher status, or perhaps indicate a special relationship between certain highland and lowland people—but nothing was certain.
Ms. Beavan called Phnom Khnang Peung the “most magnificent” of the sites, with its larger number of human remains entombed over the shortest time period, an estimated 15 to 45 years.
Each new discovery, she said, was helping to piece together the puzzle of the lost society.
“Every single site has both new and interesting clues to the mystery, and have also shown a consistency to the burial practice—the jars from Mae Nam Noi are always used, they always use simple copper rings and colored glass beads, and they are always on rock ledges,” Ms. Beavan said.
But many more questions remain, she said, and confident that additional burial sites exist, the researchers now hope to turn their efforts to their next immediate challenge: finding them.