Cardamom Mountains: Body Jars and Cliff Coffins

Nou Sotheavy / Khmer Times No Comments Share:

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The remote and mysterious Cardamom Mountains are giving up some of their secrets – burial jars and wooden coffins – to the public as part of an exhibition that begins today at the National Museum.

After a decade researching the mysteries of the Cardamom Mountain people, Nancy Beavan, a senior research fellow at New Zealand’s University of Otago and an expert in radiocarbon dating, will be exhibiting her findings as part of the “Living in the Shadow of Angkor” project at the museum.

The project seeks to broaden the breadth of understanding of Cambodian history outside of the Angkor period.  

The exhibit will be the first time the public can see how the immense project began. In a separate room in the museum, one can see the recreation of the hoard of burial jars and a dozen coffins hidden on a ledge in remote jungles of Cambodia – which have stayed secret for centuries.

The jars are partially covered by plants and sit aloft a small ledge with two wooden coffins lying opened. This was what Ms. Beaven saw in the remote mountains of Cambodia, when she was first flown to the area to see it.

The site was discovered on a conservation boundary survey expedition in 2000. The surveyor met an old Khmer Rouge soldier who had some of these exquisite bowls, Ms. Beaven recalled.

“These were porcelain and celadon bowls and so he asked, ‘Bong, where did you get those’?”

The Documentary Step

For over a decade, Ms. Beavan, an archaeologist who specializes in carbon dating, has been looking into the lives of the Cardamom people and piecing together the clues left by the mysterious people at the 10 sites scattered across southwestern Cambodia.

Knowing very little about Cambodia while living and working in New Zealand, Ms. Beaven received a call from National Geographic about doing radiocarbon dating for a bone sample their team had taken. While examining it, she discovered it was a human rib bone. Curious, she called back and asked where the bone sample was from. They answered: the Cardamom Mountains.

“I asked ‘where are the Cardamom Mountains?’ – probably the most fateful words I ever said in my entire life,” said Ms. Beaven.

Shooting a documentary in Cambodia, National Geographic originally wanted her to link the bones to the builders of Angkor Wat. But she proved the bones dated to 1482 AD – near the decline of Angkor and during a time when the Khmer socio-economic position was transitioning into trade ports on the Mekong.

Flying in a helicopter to the remote mountains, Ms. Beaven was entranced.

“The sites are amazing because they are always natural rock overhangs or clefs in the rock,” Ms. Beaven said, grinning.

She and her research team have found around 10 sites so far full of ancient jars and small wooden coffins. These sites are in the eastern ranges of the mountainous region that stretches across Koh Kong and Kompong Speu provinces.

Secrets of the Mountain

“These burial rituals are the only evidence we have about their lives. You can get a lot of information about people out of their funeral rituals,” Ms. Beaven said with a gleam in her eye.

“Funeral rituals embody everything which we most want to do in the passage of our loved ones to ease their way of the ending of life.”

The discovery of the items given to the dead can determine what that community considered important.

Simple copper rings and beads from three international trading sources were found. Most of the jars found in the grave sites were made in Thailand, except for one from the kilns from the Angkor region. 

Little is known about the unique culture of the people that placed their dead on the ledges between the 15th and 17th centuries – a practice which has not been recorded in Cambodia before.

Cremation was most common at the time.

On a cliff 100 meters high in the Cardamom Mountains, the site of Phnom Khnang Peung is the largest site with 42 intact jars with fewer than a dozen human remains as well as more tiny coffins which held body parts from more people. There are also about 10 broken jars, which Ms. Beaven and her team tried to reconstruct during the time she stayed there as part of a ceramics conservation effort. 

Although one Angkorian jar is always found at each grave site, the rest of the jars were found to have been from Thailand.  This puzzled the researchers and challenged them to find connections between the trade and maritime routes.

Noting the nearest sea trade point was in Trat, Ms. Beaven suspected the Cardamom people did not have direct connections, but traded products such as ivory, beads, resin and cardamom wood with other traders for the jars. “Cardamom wood in that region is considered the most prized out of the Cardamom types,” she said.

In 2005, fishermen off Koh Kong province found the same jars in their nets, leading to the discovery of sunken ship called the Koh Sdech Wreck dated to be from 1428 to 1482. The ship’s resin gave scientific evidence which linked the community in the Cardamom Mountains to the items traded. 

The ship contained ivory, Chinese porcelain and Thai and Angkorian jars. The jars were part of a type of ceramic known as Mae Nam Noi – made in kilns of Ayutthaya in Thailand which could have been transported to the Gulf of Thailand along the Chao Phraya River.

Unmarked History

One reason why this archaeological treasure is not very well known is the inaccessibility of the location. Even the locals didn’t know.

“Angkor or anywhere else, you can actually go and see these sites. In the Cardamom Mountains, most of these sites are so remote. We had to go in on helicopters just to get enough food and water to stay there for two weeks.” 

Despite the importance of the discovery, conservation remains a problem.

The best Ms. Beaven and her team could do was to display them in the exhibit, preserve some ceramics but leave the rest where they are for future tourists and locals to enjoy them. 

The Cardamom sites are an important part of Khmer history, but although the Wildlife Alliance has helped support Ms. Beaven’s research by providing their helicopter in 2012, it was not until the following year that she received a grant from New Zealand to fulfill the research. 

The exhibit will last for three months.

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