It’s a nice steamy afternoon here in Siem Reap and I will take advantage of some free time to finish a long post on the past few days out surveying in Banteay Meanchey. I know many people who are reading this are not archaeologists and might also be interested in hearing a bit more about the archaeological process and so I’ll use this as an opportunity to talk a bit more about that. Lastly, any story about doing archaeology in Cambodia has to include a discussion of looting too. I’ll get started when you click “Keep Reading”
Where is Banteay Meanchey?
Banteay Meanchey is in NW Cambodia and borders Thailand. (Map here). Most of the land in this area (as with most of Cambodia actually) is flat flat flat. When people talk about Cambodia many think of jungle but my experiences surveying in the NW and SW parts of Cambodia have more in common with a desert. The land is filled with rice fields and few shady trees. During the dry season this is what most of this area looks like :
However we did pass through a few areas that had a bit more water which can give you an idea of what this area looks like during the wet season. And yes, it is very hot and humid here.
There has been continuous habitation in this region for thousands of years. This leads us to our next question….
How do archaeologists find sites?
The answer to this question will be slightly different depending on where in the world you work but in Cambodia archaeologists find sites in several ways:
1) You can see them on the ground easily because they have large monumental structures (see Wat, Angkor)
2) Talk to people! This is perhaps one of the best ways to find archaeological sites. Farmers have an intimate knowledge of the landscape and know where the land has been churning up potsherds and other artifacts.
3) Looters. Other people find a site first and an archaeologist hears about it after it’s been partially or completely destroyed. A famous example is the Moche site of Sipan. (Interesting article on the discovery and consequences of the Sipan from Mother Jones here. )
4) Survey. This can be on the ground (walking around looking for artifacts , perhaps doing a test-pit excavation to see what is under the surface) or perhaps from the air or looking at aerial photos or radar imagery to get a better handle on the landscape.
In Cambodia the flat landscape in most parts of the country makes spotting archaeological sites relatively easy. Any rise or mound on the landscape almost has to be man-made. Determining how old these mounds are and how long the occupation was can only really be done by excavation. However just walking across a mound and looking at the artifacts on the surface can give you a preliminary idea.
Survey in Banteay Meanchey
This survey trip was led by Damian Evans, whose recently completed PhD on the habitation and size of Angkor got a lot of positive press. (A link to his PNAS article here and a story from the BBC here). We were guided by the work of a BA Honors student, Ngaire Richards, from University of Sydney who had looked at several different aerial photos to try and work out the location of archaeological sites in several specific areas of Banteay Meanchey province. Through her research on aerial photos she discovered what she thought were several new temple sites that had not been previously recorded and together the three of us went out to “ground-truth” her hypotheses.
There has been a very recent comprehensive survey of archaeological sites in Cambodia however even they missed sites that can be seen from the air. This is one drawback to relying solely on local sources for information on archaeological sites- it is easy for things to be overlooked. It reinforces the fact that in order to truly get a good idea of archaeological sites in an area you have to use multiple lines of evidence. Aerial photo data seems to be especially helpful in locating archaeological sites in Cambodia and is just as important as talking to people on the ground. Why is aerial photo data so useful in identifying archaeological sites? With good quality aerial photos you can easily spot mounds that could have prehistoric occupations. Additionally, during the Angkorian period people modified the landscape in very patterned ways. This can be more easily seen from the air than on the ground, so even local people might miss it.
Here’s an example using a random bit of Banteay Meanchey province I pulled from Google Earth. You can see a few squares from the air that could be Angkorian trapeang (a large water feature/pond) and it is possible (with better aerial photos and more skill than I have) that one could see a small temple mound located nearby (it is fairly common for the temples and trapeang to be associated with one another). This kind of feature could be easily missed on the ground.
So with this data in hand we set out across the countryside to “ground-truth” these possible sites from aerial photos and in the process found several new sites that had not been previously recorded.
So what does it look like? Here is a photo from a rice field looking out onto an Angkorian moated temple mound. The lower area that is being farmed for rice is the moat. The mound itself once held a temple. Despite what it may seem from this photo, once you are on the ground and know what you are looking for this starts to seem pretty obvious.
Almost all of sites I looked at were a variation on this theme. Some of the mounds had almost nothing left on them (or perhaps there were originally temples made of wood instead of brick and stone so there was not much to leave behind). Others did have a few remains and here are some examples.
The looters pit in the center of the site reveals a substantial brick structure. Many Angkorian temples had special offerings buried under the floors in the middle of the towers and the looters look here first. All the sites with architectural remains that we visisted had looters pit like this.
Below: Pedestal from this Angkorian temple site
Above: Another Angkorian moated mound with a few blocks of laterite still remaining.
We also visited two very large Angkorian temples that had been previously recorded but were exciting to see none the less. The first Prasat Doon Saw (White Grandmother) was a very large Jayavarman VII temple that had been looted and is now very overgrown. I think visiting this temple is the closest I will ever come to an Indian Jones moment. It almost seemed like no human had been there in ages and you had to hack and stomp your way though the trees to get to this massive pile of collapsed rubble. Unfortunately it was hard to capture the scale in photos.
Damian standing on some rubble at Doon Saw and some of the laterite and sandstone blocks from the temple
Above: architectural feature Buddhas from Prasat Doon Saw.
Another site we visited Yay Lao seemed almost as large and had serious large-scale looting. The center of the mound looked like a bomb crater with bits of sandstone scattered about.
Another reminder to stay on well-marked paths below.
Many of the sites also had pottery sherd scatters, primarily from the Angkorian period, but with a few prehistoric sherds mixed in. Almost all the sites had the same variety of ceramics (cream-wares, orange pottery, brown glaze, green glaze etc).
We also looked at quite a few Angkorian water features.
This photo is taken in the middle of a now dry Angkorian canal (tens of km’s long)
This is a culvert that takes water from a canal into a baray next to the Banteay Chmar temple. People have repaired and updated the pre-existing Angkorian construction.
Prehistoric Sites and Looting
I’ll start with a quote from Dougald O’Reilly of Heritage Watch
“In the next two to three years, there will be nothing left in the prehistoric sites in Banteay Meanchay and Oddar Meanchay. The two provinces share borders with Thailand, which is a gateway of sorts to sell these relics to the international market,” said Dougald O’Reilly, founder and director of Heritage Watch. “If we don’t act soon, a part of Khmer history will be lost forever.”
As an archaeology PhD student doing research in Cambodia this looting has an obvious effect on me personally and with whatever research I may like to do here. But the long-term consequences are even more serious. So many of these sites are being so completely destroyed that we may never have a really solid idea about what was happening here in prehistory. This part of Cambodian prehistory and human prehistory is being wiped away for basically a few beads to sell at the market.
So what does looting of prehistoric sites look like? Here’s a before (or rather a portion of a prehistoric site that is as of yet unlooted)
And after looting
Each of those holes is a giant looters pit (see below) and the soil is mounded up next to it. The looters cast aside human bones and pottery going for whole pots and beads that can be sold.
Below: The author looking mysteriously happy amongst the looter’s pits at a prehistoric site.
Amongst the looters spoil heap I found a piece of dried clay that an an impression of an ancient woven basket. Now the context and any information we could get about this artifact has been destroyed.
Here is a girl I spotted in Thma Puok village wearing some looted glass and carnelian beads. These are Iron Age (500 BC- 500 AD) approximately and this is what people are looting for. And what I’m doing my dissertation research on.
This won’t be the last of my rants on looting, I’m sure.
A few more photos showing some of the fun non-archaeology stuff we encountered.
We hired motorbikes to get around the landscape and sometimes the roads were not so great, but they were troopers and pushed through.
Some guys out hunting with homemade air rifles made from bike pumps give us directions.
Wat painters working in Wat Thma Puok.
And last but not least- what is going on with these sardines?