Villagers packed up their axes, knives and spades on Thursday after they were forced off a recently discovered ancient burial site in Prey Veng province, where they had plundered beads, pottery and the odd scrap of gold, officials said Monday.
Police and military police officers removed the villagers’ plastic tents from the cratered rice paddy fields where thousands had come to dig hoping for riches, said provincial culture department director Chea Sarim. Most left empty-handed.
“We explained to them that digging for ancient antiquities is illegal,” he said.
He added that many villagers had flocked to the site after rumors circulated that scavengers had found 2 kg of gold.
Prey Veng district police chief Seng Pon Lok said that nobody had been arrested for the illegal excavation because all the villagers had agreed to leave the site peacefully.
Heritage Watch Director Dougald O’Reilly said that although larger sites had been plundered over the years, this frenzied mass descent of local people to illegally excavate the site was unprecedented, destroying hectares of burial grounds with amazing speed.
“There was a huge amount of damage,” he said, adding that it would now be difficult to date the site without the chance to properly excavate.
Heritage Watch preliminary observations indicate that the style of burial pre-dates the Angkorian period, when corpses were normally cremated rather than buried.
Heritage Watch project officer Huy Samphors said that the villagers had dug up bracelets and bangles of bronze and human bone, pottery and a variety of beads.
Large, high-quality beads can fetch more than $250 from dealers at the Thai border, but local and Vietnamese businessmen at the site in Bitmeas village were buying small beads for as little as $0.03 and larger beads for around $0.75, Huy Samphors said.