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The mystery the jars: a recent expedition to a remote cave in Cambodia's Cardamom mountains has helped to shed new light on the origins of a series of extraordinary burial sites.

For Dr Nancy Beavan, the arrival of a courier bearing a bag of bones is a regular occurrence. Over the years, the US-born specialist in radiocarbon dating, currently based at New Zealand's University of Otago, has received thousands of them, both human and animal. But this particular human rib bone, sent from a remote region in southwestern Cambodia, was the beginning of a fascination that continues to captivate her.

The bone came from a remote expanse of forest in the Cardamom Mountains. This forest, the second largest and least exploited in Southeast Asia, extends over 20,000 square kilometres from the border with Thailand to the west and to the Mekong valley in the east.

For centuries, the Cardamoms offered refuge to people on the run from the law or those who simply didn't want to be a part of the communities that occupied the country's lowlands. Most recently, it was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, which was forced to retreat there in 1979 by the liberating Vietnamese Army.


The bone that so intrigued Beavan was found in an ancient burial site known as Khnorng Sroal, one of ten such sites that have been discovered so far where human remains have been interred either in large earthen jars or in coffins carved from a single log. The jars and coffins are invariably found in particularly inaccessible places--typically high up on narrow cliff ledges.

The practice of placing the dead in jars has been observed in other countries in the region--Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, for example--but in Cambodia, it's evidence has been confined to these Cardamom Mountains sites.

The origins of the sites are a mystery. No written record of the practice exists. The first reports of the burial sites appeared in the Western literature during the 1970s. Marie Martin, an ethnographer of Cardamom tribal groups, was told stories of 'bones in caves' that the local people believed were those of 'people of the court' who fled the old Khmer capital of Longvek after a Thai invasion in 1592-93.

In her reports, Martin cited comments by researchers Roland Mourer and Jean Ellul, who also worked in the region during the 1960s and '70s and were told similar stories. However, all of these researchers discarded the idea that these were the remains of high-status people because of the simplicity of the possessions buried alongside the bodies--typically a few metal rings and coloured beads.

Although extensive archaeological and anthropological data exist on the Khmer culture, particularly the people who were responsible for building Cambodia's iconic Angkor temple complexes, little research has been carried out on the cultures of other ethnic minorities or marginalised social groups from around this time.


In January, Beavan and a team of scientists were helicoptered in to Phnom Khnorng Perng, the largest of any of the known sites, with the assistance of Suwanna Gauntlet, founder and CEO of the US conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance, which has run projects in the Cardamoms since 2002.

On arrival, the team set to work, but only after offerings of incense had been made to appease the forest spirits. Once the site had been measured and split into sections, the jars were brought out one by one from the small cave in which they had been placed, a task that involved both balance and agility. Located several hundred feet up a sheer cliff, the cave was about five metres deep, less than two metres high and could only be reached via a tiny path that meandered along the cliff's edge.

Each jar was emptied and the contents bagged and handed over to Beavan's colleague, biological anthropologist Dr Sian Halcrow. 'Looking at human remains directly can tell you a lot of things about the way that person lived--the age at death, whether they are male or female, if they had any disease, and so on.' explained Halcrow as she sorted the bones, jar by jar, on a makeshift table assembled by the Cambodian helpers from tree branches and bamboo.

While the rest of the team worked through their bones and jars, Beavan surveyed the site, taking measurements of the cave and the wooden coffins; sieved through the dirt collected from the bottom of the jars and surrounding cave floor; and carefully selected which bones--one from each jar, as well as a tooth--she would take samples from for radiocarbon dating and stable-isotope analysis.

After seven days of non-stop work, the contents were returned to their jars and the reconstructed jars returned to their original place of rest. 'What we are doing here is conservation archaeology,' Beavan said. 'We return all the objects and conserve the jars because the site will continue to deteriorate and our mission is heritage protection. We can collect data as well as conserving the site as a burial ground.'

However, leaving the site as it was is a risky move, and something that still plays on Beavan's mind. Many of the more accessible sites have already been disturbed in some way; the jars have been broken by animals, or items among the smaller ceramics taken by locals who don't know the significance of these places. Phnom Khnorng Perng's remote location should keep it safe for now, but as loggers and poachers move deeper into the forest, it's days are surely numbered.

The results of the survey enabled Beavan to begin to build up a picture of the site's origins. A total of 44 jars were found at the site. Most of these date from the 14th-16th-century Maenam Noi kilns in Singburi Province in Thailand, but several were made in a 14th-century Angkorian style. Around 13 celadon plates and bowls, also from Thailand, were also reconstructed. Hundreds of Chinese glass beads, many simple metal rings, some earrings and part of a bracelet were found in and around the jars. And a total of five wooden coffins were found, all of different shapes, suggesting that they were brought in individually from other regions.

Although Halcrow carried out a full analysis of the contents of only the first 20 jars, she estimated that up to 80 individuals could be interred at the site, many jars containing the remains of two people. Out of this collection of bones, she believes she has identified the earliest archaeological evidence of scurvy in Southeast Asia, as well as evidence of anaemia. There were also two individuals who showed the first instance of tooth ablation (the intentional removal of teeth) found in this period in mainland Southeast Asia. Along with the human remains were the bones of baby pigs, an example of the variation in offerings to the ancients interred here. But who were the people in the jars? It's still impossible to know, but thanks to the new research,

which comprises samples from 40 or so bones and teeth, combined with data from four other sites, we now have an idea of when the ritual occurred and an indication of the uniformity of the practice over a considerable area throughout the Cardamoms.

Beavan has now radiocarbon dated a total of 25 samples of coffin wood and bone from other jar sites to between about 1395 AD and the mid-1600s; this coincides roughly with the demise of the Angkor civilisation, which began around the early 15th century. 'The Cardamom sites provide the first material evidence and direct dating of people living in these mountainous refuges in Angkorian times,' she says.

The jars and plates came from Thailand and Vietnam, and the beads possibly came from China. These were all common items in the maritime trade that took place along Cambodia's coastline from at least the 13th century. The sheer number of jars now counted in Phnom Khnang Pueng and the other known sites--more than 75 Maenam Noi jars alone--suggests that the highland people may have interacted directly with those seafaring people, probably trading rare woods, the spice cardamom and even elephant tusks in return.

According to Marie Martin, the Cardamoms were inhabited by three ethnic groups--the Pear-Pou, the Suoy and the Sam-re. According to folklore passed on to modern times, these people moved from lowland neighbouring provinces to collect, and trade in, the forest's valuable resources. There are also stories of a great empire of the Chong people, pre-dating those three groups, who inhabited the western border region with Thailand and even pre-dated the entry of the Khmers to the region. The Chong may have been the source group of the people who migrated to the foothills of the mountains.

While these highland groups may have ventured out to trade, they probably avoided contact with the aggressive Angkor civilisation, which was known to capture the mountain 'savages' to use as slaves. 'These people were not able to put together significant defences, so they may have retreated to places of refuge such as the Cardamoms in order to protect their culture,' explains Beavan.

Having been airlifted out of the jungle, Beavan sits on the steps of the house of the vice chief of Chi Phat, a small village on the edge of the Cardamoms. As she drinks a cup of coffee, a tall local man arrives on a run-down moped. He parks the bike, then strides over. 'We find another site, this one new,' he says in broken English. Beavan smiles and pats the step beside her. 'Well,' she says, 'you had better take a seat and tell me about it then.'
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Title Annotation:FIELDWORK: Cambodian burials
Comment:The mystery the jars: a recent expedition to a remote cave in Cambodia's Cardamom mountains has helped to shed new light on the origins of a series of extraordinary burial sites.(FIELDWORK: Cambodian burials)
Author:Duggleby, Luke
Geographic Code:9CAMB
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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