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.