Circular Earthwork Sites

My apologies for the lack of posts as of late, I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month.  Things on the bloggy end have been moving more slowly while I’ve been trying to be a good grad student. I actually have some interesting post ideas lined up and I’ll work on getting those out a bit more regularly.  For now I wanted to briefly discuss something I’ve been thinking about lately: circular earthwork sites in Cambodia.  This is a huge topic I can only briefly cover here, but I hope this entry will provide a small introduction and help me think through some of this data. You can read more after the jump!

Above: Example of a circular earthwork. (Image from here).

The circular earthworks in Cambodia were first recorded by the French archaeologist Louis Malleret (who also excavated the Funan-period site of Oc Eo in Vietnam).   He noted numerous earthworks located in what has been called the red soil region in the province of Kampong Cham in Cambodia and nearby Vietnam.

Figure 1:  Circular earthwork sites in Cambodia and Vietnam (from the Memot Centre Website)

The first earthwork was excavated by another Frenchman, Bernard Groslier, in 1962. He, along with Malleret, believed that these earthworks dated to the Neolithic period and recognized them as a distinct archaeological culture, which he called the  Memotien culture complex.  The earthworks were not studied in depth again until after the war by researchers from the Royal University of Fine Arts, the University of Hawaii, and the German Academic Exchange service.  Some really interesting scholarship has been produced as a result of this research and I’ll list citations at the end for future reference.

Some of this most recent research indicates that these sites weren’t only occupied during the Neolithic but that occupation extended all the way into the Iron Age period.  (This was because some glass bangles were found at one of the earthworks, and glass didn’t appear in SEA until the Iron Age period).

These earthworks are small mounds about 200 meters in diameter, the center of which would have been the habitation area.  They were surrounded by a  ditch that some scholars have suggested was used as a moat or for defensive purposes.  However the ditches are neither deep enough to hold water, nor substantial enough to serve defensive purposes.  One hypothesis suggests that people were using the ditches as a place to keep domestic animals.

While some have argued that the earthworks were not continuously occupied, Michael Dega (who wrote his PhD thesis on the circular earthworks in Cambodia) has suggested that there is evidence for “permanent, continuous habitation.”

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to visit these sites or the excellent Memot Centre Museum (it’s on my list for next time), but what is really cool is that the sites are visible from Google Earth.

This article lists some coordinates for newly discovered circular earthwork sites which unfortunately fall within the low-res portion.  However just to the left are some high-res scans which appear to show additional earthworks.


Above:  I am pretty sure this is the circular earthwork Krek 52/62. ( Is that cool or what?)  Surrounding the earthwork should be rubber plantations.  Many of the circular earthwork sites fall in and around modern-day rubber plantations.

Below:  Here’s another possible earthwork I spotted while scrolling around in Google Earth.


Below:  Another circular earthwork I spotted not far from Krek.


*I should note that I am not claiming to have discovered these sites.  They were most likely previously recorded and I happened to spot them on Google Earth (I just don’t have names for them).

Other moated and mounded sites have been recorded else where in SEA, but they appear to be based around more naturally formed mounds (these mounds deserve their own blog post).  On the other hand, the strikingly circular earthworks sites in Cambodia and Vietnam are distinct and unique.

I should mention one other circular earthwork site in Cambodia that may or may not be related to these sites.  That is the circular earthwork site located near the Cheung Ek Killing Fields near Phnom Penh.    This site appears to be dated a bit later than the earthwork sites in Kampong Cham and is also located in an area with a lot of kiln sites.  My colleague Kaseka has been working on excavating this site for several years and in 2006 I got to visit his site breifly.

Below are two pictures of what the site looks like from the ground.



It’s not much to see from the ground but from Google Earth you can get a better idea of the site:


Above: The thumbtack is right in the center of a giant circular earthwork- can you see it? The diameter of this earthwork is much larger than those found in Kampong Cham- it is more than 700 meters!

The day I visited they were working on an excavation in and around a kiln.


The ground here was very hard, which made excavating difficult.



Above: Here you can see the spout of a Kendi vessel.

This site was in danger of being destroyed by the landowner, but Kaseka recently told me the landowner is now interested in helping with excavations which is great news!  Kaskea hopes to start excvations again there soon.


There is a brief report on the Cheung Ek site on the US Embassy website here.

There’s quite a bit of literature on the circular earthworks of Kampong Cham- here is a selection of references.

Albrecht, Gerd, Miriam Noel Haidle, Chhor Sivleng, Heang Leang Hong, Heng Sophady, Heng Than, Mao Someaphyvath, 2000. Circular Earthwork Krek 52/62: Recent Research on the Prehistory of Cambodia. Asian Perspectives 39 (1-2): 20-46.  Online here.

Haidle, Miriam Noel 2001. Fragments of Glass Bangles from Krek 52/62 and Their Implications for the Dating of the Mimotien Culture. Asian Perspectives 40 (2): 195-208. Online here.

Dega, M. 2002. Prehistoric Circular Earthworks of Cambodia. BAR International Series 1041 Archaeopress Oxford.

Dega, M F 1999. Circular settlements within Eastern Cambodia. Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin 18:181-190.  Online here.

Last but not least, the excellent Memot Centre website should be explored.  I worked with several people affiliated with the Memot Centre, especially Heng Sophady, while I was in Cambodia and they were so helpful to me.  A trip to this museum and the earthwork sites is in the works for the next visit to Camboida.

11 responses to “Circular Earthwork Sites

  1. Fascinating post with great photos as usual, Alison! And not to be a nit-picker or anything (including, heaven forbid, a “nationalist,” haha), but note that the place name usually rendered as the Vietnamese-sounding “Oc Eo” is very likely really the Khmer “Ou Kaew” (អូរ​កែវ​), literally “emerald stream”.

  2. Very interesting post. More more more, please!

  3. Thanks Luke! I’m working on more posts but it might take a little bit to get them up.

    And thanks Lokkru- I had heard that Oc Eo wasn’t the true Khmer name but never could keep track of what people thought it was.

  4. Thank you for taking time to post this useful data.

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  6. Very interesting. Please keep posting your blog – I have it bookmarked 🙂 That last circle is HUGE! What were these people up to?

  7. Thanks Igor! That is the $60,000 question: what WERE they up to? It’s hard for me post regularly now because I’m back in the US working on my dissertation, but I will keep posting. 🙂

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