Jar Burials in the Cardamom Mountains

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).

Jars at the Phnom Khnong Peung site.

Jars at the Phnom Khnong Peung site.

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 Cardamom Mountains from a helicopter.

The Cardamom Mountains from a helicopter.

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.

Densely packed jars on a rock ledge.

Densely packed jars on a rock ledge.

A view from the jar burial rock ledge.

A view from the jar burial rock ledge.

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.

Workmen constructing our work tables.

Workmen constructing our work tables.

Two bioarchaeologists, including Dr. Sian Halcrow, examined and recorded the bones. Almost all the jars had the remains of more than one person.

Interior of a jar burial showing the human remains.

Interior of a jar burial showing the human remains.

I sorted through the detritus to look for beads, small fragments of bone, and metal jewelry.

Looking for glass beads.

Looking for glass beads.

Two ceramics conservationists, including my friend Sokha, worked on repairing and restoring the broken jars.

Sokha works on restoring a burial jar.

Sokha works on restoring a burial jar.

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.

Chinese coiled glass beads.

Chinese coiled glass beads.

There is a lot more work to be done on this project, so stay tuned for further updates!

The crew of the Living in the Shadow of Angkor Project (Jan 2013)

The crew of the Living in the Shadow of Angkor Project (Jan 2013)

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!

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5 responses to “Jar Burials in the Cardamom Mountains

  1. You should look further north for your answer. As in China and Japan, it is a very common to have jar burial in Daoism (Taoism) and Shitoism. These jars are normally placed in far away places, away from the village, in caves and road side particularly crossroads. So who ever that placed these jars, lived in a village far away. Also I am not quite sure but people in Java and Sumatra also perform such burial, they would buried the deceased in a ground burial but at a certain date in the future the entire family would dug the deceased up and merticulously wash the bones and placed them in jars also. Okay then. Good Luck

    • Thanks for your comment! This is an interesting suggestion, but I don’t think a diffusionist explanation is the correct one. For one, there is absolutely no additional evidence pointing towards any connections with Daoist or Shinto ritual practices. I’m not even sure there is historical evidence for entire villages of people who practiced Daoism or Shintoism in Cambodia during this period. Secondly, there is plenty of indigenous Southeast Asian mortuary practices (including in island SEA as you mention) that involve jar burials. Jar burials and wooden coffin burials are not uncommon during the prehistoric and early historic period across mainland SEA. The more likely explanation is that this is an indigenous practice, but because there is a) so little archaeological work that’s been done in Cambodia in general and b)even less work done on upland communities we are still working on understanding this practice.

  2. Pingback: Beads, Trade, and Power in Early Southeast Asia” – A Public Talk by Dr. Alison Carter | imagining the real world

  3. Dear Alison,
    I stumbled upon your blog and now hooked on to it. Just to let you know the ancient tamils in India do bury the old people in Jars. It seems to be so prelevant that in lots of place in Tamil Nadu in India, we need to get archaeological Survey of India approval before we can do any construction.
    Keep doing the good work and keep sharing with us.

  4. Thanks for your kind words Anand!

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