In January of this year I was lucky enough to join the “Living in the Shadow of Angkor Project” looking at jar burials in the Cardamom Mountains. The project director, Dr. Nancy Beaven, has spent several years looking at different burial sites in the Cardamom Mountains (a list of articles about some of this previous work can be found here).
There are several really cool things about this project:
- The burials date from about the 15-17th century AD, coinciding with the end of Angkor and the move of the capital further south to the region around Phnom Penh.
- The jars appear to represent an upland culture that was not Hindu or Buddhist. We know this because during the Angkorian period (and likely before) Hindus and Buddhists would cremate their dead. (Cremation is still the most common form of burial in Cambodia today). The burials in the Cardamom Mountains are different in that they were first defleshed and then their bones were collected and placed in small wooden coffins or large ceramic jars. There has been almost no archaeological research on ethnic minority communities in Southeast Asia and so these sites represent an interesting window into a little-studied way of life.
- The jars contain glass beads and metal jewelry.
Nancy and her colleagues started work at a site called Phnom Khnong Peung (ភ្នំខ្នងពើង) last year and encountered a lot of glass beads in the burial jars. When they received funding to return this year, I came a long to examine this material. More after the jump!
Getting to the site required a 15 minute helicopter ride from the town of Chi Phat and we had to bring in all of our food and water for our 2 week field season as well.
The jars are located on a rock ledge overlooking an amazing vista. The particular group of jars we examined had about 40 jar burials, one of most densely packed sites. There are other sites nearby with just one jar burial or 5 jars.
It was too precarious to do our work on the rock ledge itself, so the jars were brought to a small clearing nearby where we emptied the contents. We worked at custom made bamboo tables with a backdrop of gibbon calls and bird songs. Camping in the mountains wasn’t luxurious, but I felt lucky to experience that part of life in the jungle.
Two bioarchaeologists, including Dr. Sian Halcrow, examined and recorded the bones. Almost all the jars had the remains of more than one person.
I sorted through the detritus to look for beads, small fragments of bone, and metal jewelry.
Two ceramics conservationists, including my friend Sokha, worked on repairing and restoring the broken jars.
After our work was finished, everything was put back into the original jar and it was returned to its location on the rock ledge. Only small samples of bone, beads, ceramics, and metal were removed from the site for further analysis (as per our agreement with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts).
It’s not clear where the people who were buried in these jars lived, but there are plans to do strontium isotope analysis on the bones in order to better understand where they were from. Nancy will also be doing extensive radiocarbon dating to better understand the age of the jar burials. The jars themselves were largely made in Thailand (Maenam Noi and Sukothai or Sawankhalok- thanks Louise Cort!) although there were a couple of Angkorian jars as well. The glass beads I’ve looked at so far seem to be coming from a couple different sources, including China and possibly India or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It seems that even though these burials are quite isolated, the people in the burials were part of a robust trading network.
There is a lot more work to be done on this project, so stay tuned for further updates!
Links of note:
-The Cardamom Mountains are under threat from logging and dam building. A recent article in the Phnom Penh Post details these threats.
-A Washington Post article on the Cardamom Mountains as a tourist destination. They visit a site studied by Nancy Beaven and some of the Cambodians mentioned in the article worked with us this field season as well!