In February 2013 I was lucky enough to be in Phnom Penh for the amazing state funeral of the former King Norodom Sihanouk. I heard many people wonder what state funerals may have been like in the Angkorian period and where all the dead Angkorians were buried. Unfortunately for archaeologists, it was not part of the Angkorian culture to bury the dead with many grave goods or build funeral architecture, like the pyramids of Egypt or lavish tombs of the Mayan elites. For this reason, we know little about the mortuary activities of the Angkorian Khmers. However, one Angkorian cemetery has been excavated. Read more after the jump.
The Chinese emissary to Angkor, Zhou Daguan, actually wrote a bit about the burial practices of the late 13th Ancient Khmers. He notes that while some people cremated the dead, many people did not use coffins.
“The body is just kept on a kind of bamboo mat and covered with a cloth. When it is taken out for the funeral it is preceded by banners, drums, and music, as with us [the Chinese]….The body is carried out of town to a remote, uninhabited spot, where it is thrown down and left. After that, vultures, crows, dogs, and other village animals come and eat it. If it is quickly consumed, that means the father and mother of the dead person are blessed and so gained this reward. If it is not eaten or only partly eaten, on the other hand, it means the father and mother have come to this pass because of their wrongdoings.”
Zhou Daguan also says that the kings were buried in towers, but he did not know if it was the complete body or just the (presumably) defleshed bones. [Taken from Daguan, Zhou (2007 ) A Record of Cambodia: The Land and its People. Translated by Peter Harris. Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai].
In the 1960s, the French archaeologist B.P. Groslier headed excavations near the large water tank Srah Srang (also spelled Sras Srang) and found numerous cremated burials in jars. This work wasn’t written up until over 20 years later by his collaborator Paul Courbin (1988). Cremated remains in jars were found with ritual deposits and other grave goods, frequently including pieces of lead, as well as other ceramics, and bronzes.
The cemetery was believed to date to the 11th century. However, Courbin notes there was a period of abandonment and then reuse, perhaps in the 15th century. A deposit of jars found in the southwest contained a cache of bronzes, some dating to an earlier time period. Courbin describes this find as “the greatest treasure of its kind ever found in Cambodia.” He speculates this particular cache wasn’t a funeral deposit but a cache of goods buried in in haste, perhaps in anticipation of an attack by the Thais (!).
I asked my Cambodian colleagues what happened to the Srah Srang burials and no one seems to know. They may be in storage in France or were kept in Cambodia and lost during the war. Their whereabouts now are unknown, which is really a shame as there is much that could be learned about the ancient Angkorians by studying these material and skeletal remains. For the time being, at least, archaeologists are focusing on the lives of the living Angkorians.
You can read more about these burials and see many additional photos of the excavations at Srah Srang in this publication:
Courbin, Paul, 1988, La fouille du bassin du Sras Srang, in Dumarcay, Jacques, Documents graphiques de la Conservation d’Angkor, 1963-1973. EFEO 18, Paris, pp. 21-44.