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Touching 2,000 years of history

Exploring the research laboratories of the Royal University of Fine Arts

overcast 30 °C

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Returned to the capital our morning was spent preparing for tomorrow’s departure from Cambodia and exploring more of the city. As before various journeys were required to source cardboard boxes and a variety of packing materials.

Through a friend of a friend we were able to spend a fascinating afternoon at the Faculty of Archaeology within the Royal University of Fine Arts. Our guide for the afternoon was Netra. She is leading a Team of archaeologists in the south of the country who are working to excavate the remains of a more than 2,000 year old Cambodian settlement. Close to the now Vietnamese border the site has offered a fascinating insight into the lives of these ancient people.

Within her laboratory at the University three volunteer students were working to rebuild broken shards of pottery. Clearly defined earthenware jars were visible on their work benches, created from hundreds of broken pieces. Buried with the remains of clearly important people some of the jars had found to include human remains, whilst the larger jars had been buried with babies inside. Others had been used to cover the head of the revered bodies, in a similar practice to one already seen in Vietnam. Other earthenware objects were found to have covered the faces of the deceased. As with many questions relating to the site it is unclear why these particularly rituals were practiced.

Along with these objects a variety of jewelry items were also found. Bronze, silver and gold bracelets, beads and thin spirals of gold that may have been some sort of pendant were packed carefully into a water tight box ready for the painstaking process of cleaning, review and cataloguing. As Netra unpacked these 2,000 year old items she allowed us to hold some. With great care and a few nerves we were able to touch and feel two centuries of history, not locked behind a glass screen within a museum but cradled carefully in our hands. Quite amazing.

Unfortunately, the site of this archaeological treasure was looted by ‘antique collectors’ for some two years before the University was able to attract sufficient funding to take over the site. In that time countless objects of historical significance were removed, sold by the villagers to middlemen who in turn will have sold to collectors probably outside of Cambodia. A terrible crime against the history of the country. For whilst the archaeological sites around Angkor Wat receive more funding and publicity this site in southern Cambodia is providing a previously unknown glimpse into the history and technologies available to our ancestors 2,000 years ago.

Inside the National Museum

Inside the National Museum

From Netra’s laboratory she was then able to take us to the public display of her work in the National Museum. Housed within a section of the museum, flanked by statues of Buddha and a wooden cabin of an 18th century sailing vessel lies the fascinating story of their discovery and excavation of the village along with key objects, found earlier in their investigation, and now restored for all to see. Complete earthenware jars similar to those we had seen in the laboratory are on display, with signs explaining their use not only for carrying liquids but also as part of the burial process.

A variety of jewelry, tools and primitive weapons are also on display pointing towards skills in metallurgy and wood carving for both killing, working and personal adornment. Yet, possibly the most fascinating aspect of our visit, especially having someone so integral to the Project as our guide, were the unanswered questions. What were the gold, spring like objects? Were they decoration or some form of primitive money? Who were these important people buried with so much adoration and wealth? Why were earthenware jars so important to the burial process?

Netra and her Team, backed by German researchers, are working towards answering some of these questions. For us the visit provided a fascinating insight into a history we can only barely imagine.

Unfortunately, whilst Netra did allow me to take a few pictures within her laboratory for ‘personal use’ many of the items there have not been published to the outside world. As such I cannot publish pictures of the many interesting items we saw. However, should you visit the National Museum in Phnom Penh many of these items are on display and a very worthwhile display it remains.

After viewing the many other exhibitions within the National Museum , a variety of stone and wood statues, royal regalia and painted tapestries we returned to the streets of Phnom Penh.

A crazy number of SUVs roam the streets of Phnom Penh

A crazy number of SUVs roam the streets of Phnom Penh

For our final night we once again visited the bars and restaurants on the edge of the Mekong, close to the Royal Palace. For once rain did not interrupt our evening as we sat watching tourists, expats, locals and hawkers busy about their evening business. Tomorrow we would leave Cambodia. It would be a relatively sad departure. Cambodia, like Myanmar, had provided us with interesting sites to visit, smiling faces and good food. Accommodation, food and drink were very reasonably priced and as such the country had everything a long-term traveler might require. We both felt that it would not be long before we were returning to this country we had grown to like so much.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:36 Archived in Cambodia

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