The history of Angkorian and Pre-Angkorian Cambodia is literally written in stone, but with these centuries-old inscriptions having been written in Sanskrit and old Khmer, they tend to only attract the attention of the handful of experts who can actually read them.
But speakers at a Tuesday conference at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on stone inscriptions went a long way toward making this specialized field and the early history of Cambodia sound less stuffy and remote.
More than 80 such experts—historians, archaeologists and epigraphists—and students filled the museum’s conference room for a seminar on the subject organized by the French research institution Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient and the museum.
As Gerdi Gerschheimer of France’s Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes explained, there is little doubt that written texts—from official records to literary works—existed in the country prior to the 16th century. But only texts written on durable materials such as stone or metal have survived until today, he said.
The first specialist to write about a Cambodian stele was Hendrik Kern in 1879, Gerschheimer said. He was Dutch, which irked French epigraphists who felt they had let a “foreign” scholar launch Cambodian epigraphy, he said—Cambodia had been under French administration since 1863.
French scholars soon rallied and, by 1908, George Coedes of the EFEO was compiling a systematic inventory of Cambodia’s stone inscriptions, the texts of which he later reproduced in eight volumes, Gerschheimer said.
Inscriptions are still being discovered, said Vong Sotheara of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s History Department, referring to a seventh-century inscription his team located in 1999. The text contained the word “Khmer,” an indication that Cambodians were already using the term more than 1,300 years ago, he said.
Jean-Pierre Drege of the EFEO deplored the fact that Western historians on Cambodia have not made better use of Chinese texts. The oldest reference to Cambodia can be found in a history of China’s Sui dynasty written in the seventh century, and texts on the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, referred to political changes taking place in Cambodia at the time, he said.
“For a specialist on Cambodia, checking data contained in those works, comparing them to other regional or European sources are necessary to clarify unknown aspects of Khmer history,” Drege said.