The Mekong Interaction Sphere

It’s been while since I’ve posted on this blog, but figured I’d revive it briefly to share some recent news.

In May, my colleagues and I published an article in Science Advances estimating the population of Angkor over time. My co-author, Sarah Klassen, and I wrote about how we did this for The Conversation and I also posted a video in Khmer explaining our work.

A second co-authored article was just published in Asian Perspectives** that examines in more detail the stone and glass beads from the site of Angkor Borei in southern Cambodia. I’m going to use this blog post to talk about this research in a bit more detail.

Image of monochromatic glass beads of may colors with a 5cm scale bar.
Glass beads from Angkor Borei, Cambodia

Long time readers will know that studying the stone and glass beads of “Iron Age” or “Early Historic” (approx. 500 BCE – 500 CE) Southeast Asia is my first love and the focus of my dissertation research. This publication represents a long overdue report on a bead collection I studied for my dissertation, updated with some new information and research.

Much of the paper details how the stone and glass beads have strong ties to South Asia and represent how Angkor Borei was connected to these international trade networks. However, the part I personally find more interesting is the way beads are being exchanged within Southeast Asia.

Angkor Borei was believed to have been an inland capital of the civilization the Chinese called Funan, a precursor to the later Angkor kingdom. Much of what we know about Angkor Borei comes from the work of the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project led by Dr. Miriam Stark.

In an earlier publication** I detailed two different exchange networks in mainland Southeast Asia, based on the different types of glass and stone beads that were circulated.

Map of sites with significant quantities of potash glass beads and Type 1 agate and carnelian beads. From Carter 2015.
Map of sites with high alumina mineral soda glass beads and Type 2 agate and carnelian beads. From Carter 2015.

At Angkor Borei, we see many carnelian and agate beads that I call “Type 2” – generally beads made in simpler shapes and with lower quality stone or production methods. To me, many of these beads seem like they are being mass produced and contrast with the “Type 1” beads. Type 1 beads are made in more complex shapes (like faceted bicones) and sometimes nicer quality stone. They seem to have taken more time and skill and are not as common.

Angkor Borei also has a lot of high alumina mineral soda glass beads, like those pictured above. This is a bead type that becomes pretty widespread during the early first millennium CE and seems to be produced in India or Sri Lanka. This is different from another type glass bead made from potash glass that we tend to see at earlier and/or more coastal sites.

In this new publication, we mention that we think this particular network of Type 2 agate/carnelian beads and high-alumina mineral soda glass beads represents longstanding connections between sites in the Mekong Delta, like Angkor Borei, and sites further inland that have similar bead assemblages. In this publication we call this network the Mekong Interaction Sphere.

The dotted oval in this map represents the area of Mekong Interaction Sphere. From Carter et al. 2021.

In addition to beads, Shawn Fehrenbach and Miriam Stark have identified some similarities in earthenware ceramic production that also links these regions. The image below is from their recent publication. The orange slipped wares seems like a more localized tradition. Fine buffwares are seen are shared in the Meking Interaction Sphere as well as other coastal sites, and reduced wares also unite sites in the Mekong Interaction Sphere.

Image from Stark, M. T. and Fehrenbach, S. (2019). Earthenware Ceramic Technologies of Angkor Borei, Cambodia. Udaya, Journal of Khmer Studies 19: 109-135.

This great article by Eileen Lustig, Damian Evans, and Ngaire Richards also shows longstanding connections between the Mekong Delta regions and these regions farther inland during the mid-late first millennium CE. You can see how inscriptions (and by proxy the presence of elite rulers/power) are concentrated in the Mekong Delta and then start moving inland over time. By the 11th century CE, the majority of inscriptions are around Siem Reap/Angkor (unsurprising), but the Mekong Delta remains relevant even after Funan’s power seemingly declined.

Image from Lustig, E., Evans, D. and Richards, N. (2007). Words across Space and Time: An Analysis of Lexical Items in Khmer Inscriptions, Sixth-Fourteenth Centuries Ce. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 38: 1-26.

Seeing control of trade in the archaeological record is difficult without written documents. However, given Angkor Borei’s location close to the coast and its power as an early urban center, I strongly suspect that many of the stone and glass beads in Cambodia and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia originated from this location. I hypothesize that these beads are one of the material indicators demonstrating connections between people in the Mekong Delta and those farther inland. The distribution of beads is an early marker of this Mekong Interaction Sphere; connectivity that continued for hundreds of years until the Angkor period. Further work will be needed to determine if it extends back in time even farther.

**If you don’t have access to this article through your institution or another venue and would like to read it please email me at alisonincambodia at gmail dot com.

Indefinite hibernation

As is painfully obvious, this blog has been infrequently updated for the past several years and will likely be infrequently updated for the foreseeable future.  Still, I periodically receive word that older posts on here are helpful/informative, so I will let it continue to persist as a relic of a different stage of my life.

However, I have been keeping busy.  I maintain an “Alison in Cambodia” facebook page where I regularly post about archaeology news related to Cambodia. This is perhaps the best way to keep up with me and goings-on in Cambodian archaeology.

I also tweet semi-regularly and periodically post on Instagram.

In 2017, I joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon as an Assistant Professor and this is where most of my time and energy go. For academic/professional information on me and my work you can check the following:

I am currently PI and co-Director of the Pteah Project investigating Angkorian residential spaces in Battambang province. You can see our project website for some information on our current research! Our upcoming 2020 field season is taking volunteers through the Earthwatch Institute.

I also recently  wrote about our earlier collaborative research at Angkor Wat in The Conversation.

I look forward to hearing form readers of this blog, so please feel free to contact me at


In the field!

In a few days  I’ll be starting our new fieldwork project in Battambang.  I more regularly update on the Alison in Cambodia Facebook page and also post updates and photos on Twitter and Instagram.  You can follow along with our progress there!


We’ll be undertaking research near Prasat Basaet, near Battambang


Cambodian resources on archaeology [UPDATED]

[Update: Already getting suggestions on my Alison in Cambodia Facebook page– new additions are listed below]

A recent study found that Facebook was the main source of news for tech-savvy Cambodians.  I’ve also found there to be an increasing number of Facebook pages by Cambodians that frequently post about Cambodian archaeology – including new developments and news stories that are not always covered in the English-language sources.

As a partner to my informal list of archaeological projects in Cambodia (which will be updated soon), I thought I’d also start a list of some of these resources for those who are interested.  I will note that many are written in Khmer.  (If you don’t read Khmer, Google Translate is doing a better job lately).

The APSARA Authority’s Facebook page.  A great resource and very frequently updated about all manner of APSARA Authority activities.

National Authority for Sambor Prei Kuk Facebook page.  Sure to be filled with new developments as this site has recently received UNESCO World Heritage status.

Kerdomnel Khmer Group Facebook page. This page is run by Cambodian archaeologist Chen Chanratana and frequently posts about Cambodian archaeology. A few years ago, they published a couple issues of a  magazine on Cambodian archaeology.

Angkor Sharing Club Facebook Page.  I recently started following this page, which frequently posts and shares posts from other sources on Cambodian archaeology, culture and heritage.

Khmer Youth of the Mekong Delta Facebook Page. This page is not archaeology-focused, but does frequently post about archaeology and culture heritage, especially things related to southern Cambodia.

Saved Team of Cambodian Culture Heritage Facebook Page. This is run by my friend/colleague Tep Sokha and especially focuses on his work related to conservation of Cambodian (archaeological) ceramics.

ខ្យងKhcang Blog. This new blog is run by my friend/colleague Piphal Heng. He has just started, but publishing in Khmer and English. So far, he’s spent some time discussing the name “Sambor Prei Kuk.”

គំនូរក្បាច់បូរាណខ្មែរ និងគំនូរបូរាណខ្មែរ . This roughly translates as Ancient Khmer Ornaments and Drawings. Posts frequently on Khmer decorative arts.

Living with Heritage Project. Their Facebook page description says  “founded by An Raksmey in 2013. We work on cultural research for heritage promotion.”

Have I missed anything? Please let me know in the comments!

Lidar is Magic: Part 2 – Cool new finds

In case you missed it: Lidar is Magic: Part 1 , in which we learned that LIDAR is pretty great, but just one in a suite of tools used by archaeologists. And also, there are no lost cities.


Lidar image of Pre-Angkorian towers of Sambor Prei Kuk among the trees. Courtesy McElhanney via the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI).

The press coverage on the Cambodian Archaeology Lidar Initiative (CALI) has died down a bit now. While many  news outlets focused on the (false) lost city narrative, there were quite a few interesting discoveries presented in Damian Evans’ Lidar paper that I think are worth discussing in more detail. I present some of my favorite findings below in no particular order.  Continue reading

Lidar is Magic: Part 1

[UPDATE: Please check the comments for Damian Evans’ friendly critiques of my comments]

I first visited Angkor in 2005 as a tourist (following a couple months of survey in southern Cambodia).  If you’ve visited Angkor perhaps you, like me, stared out from your tuk-tuk as you breezed pass the thick trees in Angkor Thom and wondered “I wonder what is going on in there?” You might also have recognized that at its height, Angkor and its many temples would not be the vacant ceremonial center that it appears today, but a bustling city and so you might have also wondered “Where were all these people living?”

2015-06-22 14.20.41

Our 2015 excavation of a house mound within the Angkor Wat temple enclosure.

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How the sausage gets made

I’ve had several people contact me with an interest in doing archaeological research in Cambodia and questions about becoming an archaeologist.  Although I’ve discussed this a bit in this post, I realized that not a lot of people know what it’s like to be an archaeologist.  So, I thought I’d take some time to detail my experiences and explain what it is I actually do. Your regularly scheduled news and insights into Cambodian archaeology will return after this post.


Working with Royal University of Fine Arts students in Cambodia

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Harihara and the early rulers of Cambodia

The return and reunification of the head of a Harihara statue has been in the news as of late. The head was taken to France from the southern Cambodian hilltop temple site of Phnom Da in the 19th century by the French scholar Etienne Aymonier. Phnom Da is just outside the walled city of Angkor Borei, home to the earliest dated Khmer inscription and a central place in what some (including me) might argue was an early state-level society in Southeast Asia.

These statues, although perhaps perceived as primarily art objects now, were intimately tied to the power and status of early rulers. Art Historian Paul Lavy has suggested that the Harihara statues specifically played an important role in the strategies of emerging rulers seeking to expand their power.


The head of the Harihara from Phnom Da, recently returned and reunited with his body in Cambodia (via).

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Fully funded PhD Scholarship in Southeast Asian archaeology at University of Wollongong

Fully funded PhD opportunities are rare, and one in Southeast Asian archaeology is a unicorn.  I pass on an announcement for a PhD opportunity at the University of Wollongong with my colleague, Dr. Ben Marwick.


Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD position in archaeology, within the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), University of Wollongong (UOW). The successful candidate will join a multi-disciplinary project that is seeking to generate new data related to the Late Pleistocene colonisation of Asia and Australasia by modern humans (Homo sapiens) and other archaic hominins present in the region at this time. This forms part of the ARC Australian Future Fellowship project led by Dr Ben Marwick, The archaeology of Thailand and Myanmar: A Strategic Region for Understanding Modern Human Colonization and Interactions Across our Region. This project is linked to Prof Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts’ ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship Out of Asia: unique insights into human evolution and interactions using frontier technologies in archaeological science. To address substantial questions concerning early modern human colonisation and adaptation in mainland Southeast Asia, we are developing a number of innovative archaeological- science techniques, and are assembling a research group with strengths in artefact analysis, geochronology, geoarchaeology, and archaeological chemistry.

The PhD candidate will study stone artefact assemblages to engage with major global and regional archaeological questions relating to the timing and nature of human activity during the Late Pleistocene in Southeast Asia and the wider region. The position will involve overseas fieldwork in Myanmar and an intensive, laboratory-based analytical research program. The candidate will be expected to help develop and apply novel techniques for analysing stone artefacts, and conduct an experimental program.

The candidate will receive a tax-free stipend of AUD 25,849 per year (indexed annually), for three and a half years. Research funding opportunities are available, with candidates encouraged to apply for the various university-wide schemes available at UOW and CAS. For more details, see

What do we know about Angkorian society?

Things have been busy these past few months with lots of developments and exciting new changes to come.  Since June I’ve been directing an excavation project looking at a house mound within the Angkor Wat enclosure.  This project is part of the Greater Angkor Project research program, a collaboration between the APSARA Authority and the University of Sydney. I’ll follow-up with a longer post on this work later, but in the meantime you can read a short article on this work in The Phnom Penh Post here.

I have also been tweeting regular updates on the excavation and you can follow along at @alisonincambo.

The Phnom Penh Post article describes this project as one of the first to focus on the common people and in a way, this is true. This is the first research-driven project focused on excavating a house mound and understanding the lives of the people who lived there (non-elite members of society) through the material remains of activities within and around a house.  This is a branch of archaeology known as household archaeology.  However, there have been several research projects recently that have expanded our understanding of Angkorian habitation and Angkorian society more generally.

A photo of our excavation trenches within the Angkor Wat enclosure.

A photo of our excavation trenches within the Angkor Wat enclosure.

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