Unearthing history

Since last weekend, thousands of Cam­bo­di­ans from around Siem Reap have come either on foot, by boat or ve­hicle to the archeological dig set up in the middle of the West Baray at Angkor, said Chris­tophe Pottier, who is in charge of the excavation.

At times, the temperature reaches well into the 40s, and the flat bed of the reservoir offers no shelter to people covering the kilometer be­tween the banks and the site. Yet, “it’s now like a festival here,” said Koeung Vireak. A Cam­­bodian archeologist with the Ja­panese Con­ser­va­tion Team for Safe­guarding Angkor, he is part of Pot­tier’s team trying to beat the rain.

The first visitors showed up af­ter hearing about the dig through Khmer-language media, Pot­tier said.

Since then, the Cambodian ru­mor system has taken over, and some people arrive with can­dles and incense, having heard that one ske­le­ton is of a 2.5-meter-tall Ang­kor­ian king who should be honored, Koeung Vireak said. A tall per­­son’s skeleton has in fact been un­covered, but its height is within norms, he said.

The traffic became such that Ap­sa­ra Au­tho­ri­ty—the government or­ganization managing the Ang­kor Archeological Park—has as­signed per­­sonnel to control traffic and limit vehicle ac­cess.

For the second year in a row, Pot­tier and his team are involved in a race against nature, hoping to ex­cavate as much as possible be­fore the rains start to pour.

In June 2004, the drought conditions, which had left the bottom of the baray virtually dry for the first time since 1998, had seemed the op­por­tu­nity of a decade for Pottier, who is a member of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, or EFEO, the French government agency that has been studying Angkor for more than a century.

Pottier had hastily assembled an ar­che­o­lo­gi­cal team to investigate the bottom of this huge re­servoir—an 8-by-2 kilometer, artificial lake built in the 11th century as part of Angkor’s irri­ga­tion system—before rain, the Siem Reap ri­ver and underground water could submerge it.

With the authorization of Apsara Au­thority, Pot­tier’s 24-member team had tested a few locations in the baray and uncovered a burial ground.

The absence of iron tools, be­lieved to have ap­peared in South­east Asia about 2,400 years ago, sug­gested that the site was from an earlier time. The pottery shards resembled fragments found at the prehistoric sites of Samrong Sen, south of Kom­pong Thom, and Mlu Prei in Preah Vihear province, Pottier said.

The site was eventually covered with more than one meter of wa­ter. “It could take a decade before the ba­ray would dry out again,” he said.

However last month, Pottier rea­lized that the site was accessible again due to low precipitation during the last rainy season.

Carbon-14 dating and other tests had confirmed that samples col­lected in June 2004 were at least 3,000 years old, Pottier said. This made them the oldest traces of human occupation unearthed and duly dated in the region of Ang­kor, he said.

These findings also indicated that the region had been inhabited nearly two millennia before the start of the Angkorian empire in the 9th cen­tury, at a time when the population still bu­ried their dead—the Khmer later adopted the In­­di­an practice of cremation.

So right after Khmer New Year in April, Pot­tier charged ahead to get funding and assemble a team to excavate the site without delay.

Within days, Apsara Authority granted autho­riz­ation to dig; and funds arrived from the French M­i­n­istry of Foreign Affairs, the French Em­bassy, the UN Ed­u­ca­tion­al, Scientific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­zation, the EFEO and Beatrix Lap­­ham, a private donor.

A team of more than 40 people was formed. It consisted of three Cam­bodian and three French ar­che­ologists; an EFEO technical team; four French anthropologists from Paris; and 30 Cam­bodian skilled workers who have been on va­­rious EFEO projects for five years.

Work began on May 11. Based on last year’s dig, the team selected a 5-by-15 meter section with the idea of expanding it, weather permitting. So far, about 10 graves have been uncovered, and will be dis­mant­led and brought to laboratories for analysis, Pottier said.

Workers must proceed with great care be­cause there is more than one level of graves—a com­mon feature at prehistoric burial sites, he said. “We use the softer bamboo sticks to work be­cause the bones are very fragile,” Koeung Vi­­reak said.

“The skeletons are laid down as if the people had been asleep,” said Pottier. “The bodies may have been wrapped in mats or put in coffin.” The team is finding earthenware shards, animal and fish bones, and traces of plants near the ske­letons, but it’s too early to tell whether these were offerings or signs of nearby habitations, he said.

The pottery fragments are occasionally decorated with red paint or scallop designs, said Koeung Vireak. Samples from the soil, which is san­dy with spots of silt, are recorded and stored in plastic bags for future screening.

The study of this burial site will reveal a great deal on those people of 3,000 years ago, said Pot­tier. “Burial grounds reflect a society’s be­liefs, customs and social structure.”

The age and cause of death help determine peo­ple’s lifestyle, he said. Different burial rituals for men and women, or graves markedly richer than others indicate social hierarchies.

Samples will be extensively studied before any conclusion can be drawn, Pottier said. Ri­tu­als are already evident: One group of people was laid with their heads to the northeast, and ano­ther group to the southeast. This may cor­res­pond to a change of practice over generations—again, it’s too early to tell, he said.

Tests indicate that the area was probably aban­doned at some point between the time of this burial site and the building of the baray two mil­lennia later, Pottier said. By the 700s, a city was located in this area, he said.

The archeological team hopes to continue working through the first days of June. But as soon as the water starts rising, they will have to pack up, not knowing when it will be possible to excavate there again.


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