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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The real problem with taking naked photos at Angkor

Apparently there has been yet another incident of tourists taking nude photos at Angkor. The first was a photo of an “Asian female” that was posted on Facebook. The second involved a group of Frenchman who were deported. The third got two American sisters kicked out of Cambodia. And most recently a German tourist’s nudes were discovered on Facebook, after the fact.*

One might be amazed that there are still quiet corners of the Angkor park, which are not crawling with hordes of tourists, where one can disrobe undisturbed. At certain sites, if you play your cards right, you can often find yourself alone with only your thoughts.**

The Cambodian government and the APSARA Authority are understandably upset, noting that this is disrespectful to Cambodian culture, and their sense of morality and virtue.

I think the other problem with these photos is the underlying assumption by these tourists that Angkor is some kind of amusement park and not a living heritage site that is important to many Cambodians. These tourists are only using the temples as a backdrop to their “cool” photos. They show a willful ignorance of the cultural context of the temples, of Cambodia’s ancient and modern history, and the sacredness of these sites to the Cambodian population today.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is a place of great pride for Cambodian people. Relatively recently, insults to the memory of Angkor have caused death and destruction of property. Many Cambodians who live in Cambodia, including many students studying archaeology in Phnom Penh, have never been to see Angkor, but are proud of this part of their heritage and consider it to be an important part of their national identity. Taking nude photos is like taking a photo of someone flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, or taking nude photos at the 9/11 Memorial, or Notre Dame Cathedral.

To take nude photos at Angkor means that you do not understand or care to learn about the history and culture of Cambodia, or choose to ignore this for your own amusement. It is disrespectful, but I do not think that any of the tourists meant any disrespect. I think they thought they were being cute, or artsy, or funny and they took those photos because their foreign identities and financial means gave them a certain amount of (perceived) impunity.

It is a special kind of privilege to be able to visit Cambodia and not give a crap about the place you’re visiting.

Please don’t be that person.

*Before that were these classy folks riding naked on a motorbike.

**The website of the German tourist shows one nude photo taken at the Bayon (although all the photos are mislabeled as being at Angkor Wat, because see above re: not caring). I have no idea how that photo was taken without being seen by anyone.

Fieldwork opportunities in Southeast Asia

I am frequently contacted by people interested in doing fieldwork in Cambodia. For reasons I detail here, this is often difficult.  However, there are several schools running fieldwork projects this summer in other parts of Southeast Asia. These are a good introduction to the archaeology of the region.

Ifugao Archaeological Project in the Philippines (Application Deadline: March 16th)

Summer archaeological Field School at Promtin Tai, Thailand (Application Deadline: February 15th).

Summer archaeological Field School in Krabi, Thailand (Application Deadline: February 15th)


Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities 

AIA fieldwork scholarships  (Application Deadline: March 1st)

Jay-Z and Beyonce visit Angkor Wat

My Facebook feed was atwitter yesterday with news that Beyonce and Jay-Z had visited Angkor.  I was also pleased to see that my friend, Kompheak Seng was the one to show them around.  Kompheak is an accomplished archaeologist who has undergone training at the University of Hawaii and worked in Cambodia and the Philippines.

Kompeak Seng (sitting to the left of Jay-Z and Beyonce).

Kompheak Seng (sitting to the left of Jay-Z and Beyonce). Photo courtesy of Kompheak Seng.

He told me that he took them to Angkor Wat and the Bayon. (I guess they didn’t have time to see more).  He said they were excited to see the smiling faces at the Bayon. Unfortunately, they didn’t have time to pick Kompheak’s brain about Cambodian history and archaeology nor did he get a chance to show them Cambodian delicacies like prahok.  Maybe on their next trip!

That is not a stegosaurus

Curmudgeon month continues here as I take another myth about Angkor to task. This time it’s the silly “Stegosaurus at Ta Prohm” rumor.  This myth has been popularized by young earth creationists*, who’ve argued that one particular small carving on a doorway at Ta Prohm depicts a Stegosaurus.  Never mind that the entire temple is covered with carvings of fantastic and mythical creatures, this one carving is evidence that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.

Carving on Ta Prohm.  This is not a stegosaurus.

Carving on Ta Prohm. This is not a stegosaurus.

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Stop saying the French discovered Angkor

I suppose I’m a bit of a curmudgeon and therefore get fairly easily annoyed. One of my biggest pet peeves is the old myth about how the French, specifically the explorer and researcher Henri Mouhot, “discovered Angkor” in 1860. This myth is based on an idea that the  Cambodians had no knowledge of their past, and therefore helped the French justify their colonial rule in “restoring a nation to its past grandeur” (Dagens 1995:47).  As Angkor has been in the news lately, due to the recent BBC documentary, this factual inaccuracy continues to be perpetuated.  It’s time for this myth to die.

A drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot.

A drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot, who did not discover Angkor.

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Day of Archaeology post on Ta Prohm

Time flies.  Back in July I wrote a post for “Day of Archaeology” about our fieldwork at Ta Prohm.  You can read that and see photos here.

The logo for our GAP field season t-shirt, showing an image of Prajnaparamita and noting the original name of Ta Prohm.

The logo for our GAP field season t-shirt, showing an image of Prajnaparamita and noting the original name of Ta Prohm (Rajavihara). Design by Pipad Krajaejun.