Monday, August 14, 2017

After Incredible Finds, Angkor Archaeologists Wrap Up Dig

BY MICHELLE VACHON, The Cambodia Daily

After 13 days of excavation that yielded artifacts beyond their dreams, archaeologists and researchers wrapped up work in Angkor Archaeological Park this week. After the excitement of their finds—which included a 1.9-meter statue of a guard and part of a Medicine Buddha—the team now have to get on with the job of assessing what they’ve found.
This will range from restoring statues to analyzing soil samples to determine which medicinal plants were grown at the site where a hospital stood 800 years ago, during the reign of King Jayavarman VII.
Sculputure fragments unearthed at the dig are photographed with a ruler that indicates their scale and orientation. (Natalie Khoo)

One big task will be to renovate the magnificent guard statue found on the second day of the dig on July 29. It would have once stood in the hospital grounds, which are located next to the northern entrance of Angkor Thom, the walled city of the king.
Weighing about 200 kg and missing its feet and part of its legs, the sandstone figure was an unexpected discovery.
“Normally we find pottery, shards of different sizes…tiles and some metal objects, but this is special, unusual that we find statues,” said Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist with the Apsara Authority, the government agency that manages Angkor Park in Siem Reap province and which conducted the excavation.
Their archaeological riches didn’t end there. The team came across traces of smelting, which might have been for bronze casting, said Mr. Sokrithy, who was the dig’s scientific supervisor. “We’re now working on it,” he said.
On Monday, the archaeologists unearthed their second major find. This time it was a Medicine Buddha, which they identified from an object similar to a small pyramid in the palm of his hand. Although hospital inscriptions from that era mention that a Medicine Buddha stood in the temple of every Jayavarman VII hospital compound, this is the first ever found.
“I had said we would hit gold if we found the statue of the Buddha. This is it, we hit gold,” said Dr. Rethy Chhem, an authority on Angkorian hospitals and medicine who served as adviser on the dig.
The statue confirms that Buddhist medicine, whose techniques included pulse taking, was practiced eight centuries ago in Cambodia, he said.
The excavation also yielded a large number of assorted fragments, said Khieu Chan, an archaeologist with the Apsara Authority and a site supervisor during the excavation. “So many porcelain, roof tiles, Khmer ceramics…and Chinese ceramics,” he said.
On Wednesday, researchers began completing their records of the site and filling in the excavation pits to protect it for future excavations and enable people to walk again in the area.
The excavation has shown that more research needs to be done on Jayavarman VII hospitals, Mr. Chan said. Dr. Chhem agreed, if only to try to find out who used the hospitals, he said.
Whether future digs will be lucky enough to come across similar incredible finds, however, remains to be seen.
During the excavation, the team was joined by 14 archaeology students from 10 countries that are members of the East Asia Summit, said Ea Darith, an archaeologist with the Apsara Authority’s Angkor International Center for Research and Documentation. Prior to working on the dig, the students visited the pre-Angkorian site of Sambor Prei Kuk in Kompong Thom province, which last month received Unesco World Heritage Status, and the Angkorian monument of Banteay Chhmar in Banteay Meanchey province, he said on Wednesday.
Funded by Singapore, the project has a long-term goal, said Singaporean archaeologist Lim Chen Sian. “These are the new generation of archaeologists, which will produce archaeology and scholarship [research
documents] for the next 30 years,” he said. “This project allows them to interact…to meet, so that in the future when they reach middle management and senior management, they will have this friendship and
bonding continuing throughout the decades.”

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Villagers carve out a niche with traditional set of skills

Koh Chen’s villagers have been hammering out a living for generations, and its younger artisans see no reason why their source of income should change

by Roth Meas, The Phnom Penh Post

As you enter the village of Koh Chen (Chinese Island) on the Tonle Sap you hear the dull thud, thud of metal being hammered into shape.
This is the sound of the villagers practising their craft. For inhabitants of Koh Chen, on the opposite side of the river to Oudong on National Highway 5, copper smithing has long been a way of life.

The Kandal province artisans make pots, bowls, plates, ornamental swords, bracelets, and other souvenir items from flattened copper. Their work not only exemplifies Cambodia’s reputation for craftsmanship, but offers generations of villagers a reliable income.

Hammer in hand, coppersmith Pin Vuthy, 24, says he and other young people in the village learned their craft from their parents and elders.
“Making artistic copper pots, bowls, plates or bracelets is our traditional job in Koh Chen village,” he says.

And Pin Vuthy says he wants to see these skills passed on, so future generations can enjoy this guaranteed livelihood.

Their traditional work is in such high demand that Koh Chen villagers rarely need to market their products directly, with Phnom Penh’s dealers beating a path to their door.

“Generally we make copper products based on orders from dealers at the market,” Pin Vuthy says.

All eight people in Vuthy’s family are skilled in fashioning copper into craft items, involved in every stage of the production process.

Pin Vuthy cuts and carves flattened copper into decorative swords, popular among Cambodians for weddings. His two sisters carve them with traditional Khmer motifs. In one day they can produce up to six wedding swords.

Pin Vuthy emphasises the fact that his is a highly skilled trade in which attention to detail is essential to a quality product. “Carving is not an easy job, and I pay a lot of attention to it,” Pin Vuthy says. “I have to use both physical and mental power to do the work carefully by hand.”

He says he is proud of the traditional skill set of his family and his community, considering his craft to be a part of his ancestral heritage.

He says his job offers him a good income, and he doesn’t have to leave his village for work – although he occasionally goes to Phnom Penh to buy copper.

Jeng Chanthou, one of the dealers who frequent Koh Chen village, has sold its products for the past 14 years.

She has some of the copper items silver-plated, selling the work at Russian Market, Central Market and small shops in the city.

“Mostly foreigners and high-class people buy the artistic pieces from us,” Jeng Chanthou says. “But we also place orders for bracelets, copper jewellery and swords for traditional Cambodian weddings.”

She says plates with carvings of Angkor Wat or Preah Vihear temple always fetch a good price.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

For Archaeologists, a Dream Find at Angkor Park

BY MICHELLE VACHON, The Cambodia Daily

Archaeologists are typically happy to find pottery shards when they excavate a site in Angkor Archaeological Park as too many centuries have passed and too many cities have risen and collapsed for them to expect to find major objects in the ground.
So what occurred Saturday seemed like something that happens only in the movies. On the second day of an excavation in Siem Reap province, a team of archaeologists found a 1.9 meter statue weighing about 200 kg at an 800-year-old site in Angkor Park.

The archaeology team holds a religious ceremony on Sunday to ask the spirit protecting the site permission to move the statue they unearthed the previous day to the Preah Sihanouk Museum in Siem Reap province. (Apsara Authority)

“We were very surprised to find this,” said Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist with the Apsara Authority, the government organization managing Angkor Park, and the dig’s scientific supervisor.
The sandstone statue is missing its feet and parts of its legs. Had it been whole, it would have stood at least 2.1 meters, he said. In the image of a guard, it would have stood on the grounds of a hospital that was located next to the northern entrance of Angkor Thom, the walled city of King Jayavarman VII. The excavation began last Friday and is meant to last about 12 days. The hospital is one of the 102 that the 12th century king is believed to have built throughout his Angkorian empire, said Tan Boun Suy, deputy director-general for the Apsara Authority.
“Jayavarman VII’s reign was truly remarkable in terms of social programs,” he said. “The hospital consisted of wooden buildings and a chapel erected in stones. What is left is the chapel…as wooden structures have long disappeared.”
If the excavation unearths other objects of the time, it would provide useful information on the life and activities in those hospitals and also the lives of ordinary people of the era, of which very little is known, he said yesterday.
For this excavation, the Apsara Authority retained Rethy Chhem as an adviser. A university professor and radiologist who heads the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, a Phnom Penh think tank, Dr. Chhem is also a historian and the authority on Angkorian-era hospitals and medicine, Mr. Boun Suy said.

Archaeologists made a grid to draw the statue yesterday before moving it. (Apsara Authority)

Moreover, Dr. Chhem initiated and led the 2006 excavation of a hospital built during the same era near the western gate of Angkor Thom alongside French archaeologist Christophe Pottier.
“There are four hospitals identified at the four cardinal points of Angkor Thom,” Dr. Chhem said last Friday. “They were identified by French archaeologists about 100 years ago, but had never been excavated.”
“In each hospital…there were two shrines within the enclosure,” he said. “The principal shrine has a gate that opens toward the east, the second one…to the west.”
They housed three divinities, including a statue of the Medicine Buddha, Dr. Chhem said.
“We would hit gold if we found the statue of the Buddha.”
Many statues of the Buddha were destroyed during the reign of Jayavarman VIII in the mid-13th century in his effort to restore Brahmanism in the country, and most of those that remained were looted, although some were buried for their protection.
Dr. Chhem and the excavation team never dreamed of finding one of the hospital’s major statues on the second day of excavation. And yesterday, the team kept making discoveries: They found a piece of another statue, Mr. Sokrithy said. “We also found much evidence of wooden structures such as roof tiles and ceramics.”
The excavation is conducted by the Apsara Authority in cooperation with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. As part of a training program, 10 students from Asian countries, the U.S. and Australia are taking part in the excavation, Mr. Sokrithy said.

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