Vol 1, No. 2 Fall 1997
Development, Motivations, and Directions
Alexander L. Wesson
Each country has to maintain its own culture... if there is no culture, our country will disappear.
Chheang Serei Vuthy1
A fresh wave of Khmer2 archaeologists, committed to the stewardship of Cambodia's past, is rising to the challenges posed by a history of colonialism, the destruction of cultural resources, and a lack of training and facilities. Combined with information gleaned from textual sources, interviews with Khmer archaeologists currently studying at the University of Hawai'i (Bong Sovath, Chan To, Chheang Serei Vuthy, and Tea Van) facilitate the understanding of the historical development, current state, and future directions of indigenous archaeology in Cambodia. Khmer archaeology, largely built upon a foundation of colonialist historical scholarship, is now turning its attention to the sustainable management of Cambodia's rich cultural heritage through education and preservation. The interviewed Khmer scholars expressed strong sentiments of nationalism and cultural pride, feelings which play a central role in stimulating the investigation of their past. Their views on tourism, education, international collaboration, and independent research offer a look at the future of archaeology in Cambodia.
The majority of early archaeological investigations in Cambodia were conducted by the French, who occupied the country from 1863 to 1953. The "discovery" of magnificent Angkor Wat in 1850 initiated French archaeological interest in Cambodia, which was primarily concerned with the classic monumental structures of the historic period. The Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, established in the late nineteenth century, began a period of intensified investigation of the physical remnants of the Khmer Empire. Colonial French cultural historians studied art, architecture, and inscriptions, generally addressing stylistic and symbolic issues in the valuable archaeological record provided by monumental architecture, statuary, and inscriptions.
During the colonial period, prehistoric Southeast Asia was considered to have been a cultural backwater. Consequently, early colonial archaeology attributed the development of social complexity in Southeast Asia to the diffusion of traits from other regions, primarily India and China.
Some Khmer archaeologists, including Bong Sovath3 and Chheang Serei Vuthy,4 have characterized the French motivation for the pursuit of archaeology in Cambodia as an extension of colonial dominance. By securing ownership of Cambodia's past, the French consciously or unconsciously, but always implicitly, sought to extend their control of the Khmer people to the historical roots of their cultural identity.
The French considered their own interpretations of Cambodian history and prehistory to be sufficient, rarely seeking indigenous input in the process of explanation. Archaeological survey, excavation, and data collection were organized and directed by French nationals, such as Henri Mansuy, with the extent of Khmer participation generally limited to physical labor. Site reports and all interpretive writing and analyses were written in French, not in the Khmer language, and were often removed from Cambodia. This encoded knowledge resulted in a culturally restricted audience. The only Khmer people who could access this information were the educated elite with training in the French language.
The transformation and transportation of knowledge and material culture from their geographic and cultural context to external depositories belies the essentially extractive nature of colonialist archaeology in Cambodia. This problem continues today, resulting largely from Cambodia's lack of appropriate expertise, facilities, and equipment for conducting archaeological research with current analytical methods and techniques.5
Bong Sovath identifies the origin of Khmer archaeology with the creation of an archaeology school for the training of Khmer students at the Royal University of Fine Arts in the mid to late 1960's. The first students in this program were trained in an entirely French tradition, and, therefore, early Khmer archaeologists tended to emulate the colonial model. Following in the footsteps of their French instructors, Khmer researchers focused on the stylistic and symbolic aspects of historic art and architecture as well as on the establishment of a chronological sequence and the seriation of prehistoric6 remains.
During the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Cambodian government sought to develop research, training, and preservation programs in concert with regional and international organizations. The Southeast Asian Minister of Education Organization (SEAMO) held conferences in Phnom Penh in 1972 and 1973 with the goal of establishing an Applied Research Center for Archaeology and Fine Arts (ARCAFA).7 Unfortunately, subsequent to the initiation of this institution, the Cambodian government fell to the Khmer Rouge, beginning nearly a decade of war and forcing SEAMO to locate ARCAFA in Thailand.
The Khmer Rouge made a concerted effort to destroy both the products and producers of knowledge in Cambodia, effectively putting all scientific inquiry in the country on hold. The National Library8 was practically destroyed. Intellectuals were imprisoned and executed out of fear that educated Cambodians with a strong connection to their cultural heritage would revolt against the Khmer Rouge.9
Not only did this widespread destruction preclude external archaeological investigation, it practically wiped out the discipline of archaeology in Cambodia. Only three or four Khmer professional archaeologists survived the devastating period of Khmer Rouge control.10 Thus, the initial efforts to develop an indigenous Khmer archaeology were crushed and stunted by a dark period of genocidal civil war in Cambodia. However, in the ten years after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge government by Vietnam in 1978-9,11 the country was slowly rebuilt, and the Royal University of Fine Arts was eventually able to resume the education of Khmer archaeology students in 1989.12
In preparing this paper, several Khmer students from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, currently studying at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, were interviewed in an attempt to define the character of recent and current Khmer archaeological thought. To a large degree, their desire to engage in archaeological inquiry is motivated by pride in their cultural heritage, an emotion that has fostered the rebuilding of their war-torn society. Like many groups who have suffered from the effects of armed conflict and wounds to their collectively held national pride,13 these Cambodian scholars are increasingly looking to archaeology and history as means of drawing from the past achievements of their nation. While the archaeology of the world is important to these scholars, Khmer archaeology comes first. Indeed, one interviewee, Chan To, makes the point that national identity is vitally intertwined with Khmer archaeology.
National consciousness has been one of the driving forces in the development of archaeology in several European nations, and it continues to motivate the archaeological endeavors undertaken in many countries today. Developing countries, especially those emerging from a history of external colonial control, tend to employ archaeology as a tool to promote national unity. Trigger defines the motivations and roles of nationalistic archaeology:
The primary function of nationalistic archaeology, like nationalistic history of which it is normally regarded as an extension, is to bolster the pride and morale of nations or ethnic groups. It is probably strongest amongst peoples who feel politically threatened, insecure or deprived of their collective rights by more powerful nations or in countries where appeals for national unity are being made to counteract serious divisions along class lines. Nationalistic archaeology tends to emphasize the more recent past rather than the Paleolithic period and, in particular, to draw attention to the political and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations or other forms of complex societies.14
The portrait of Khmer archaeology that emerged from the interviews fits Trigger's profile of "nationalistic archaeology" in many ways. Following the destructive upheaval of the Khmer Rouge era and the subsequent rebuilding of the nation, archaeology is emerging as an important element in the process of bolstering and maintaining the cultural pride of the Khmer, a sentiment motivating the indigenous investigation of Cambodia's past.
The term "nationalist archaeology" carries certain negative connotations for many professionals in the discipline, where nationalist agendas are considered to be antiquated, politically biased, and unscholarly. However, the Khmer archaeologists at the University of Hawai'i are unabashedly vocal about their pride in their ethnic, cultural, and national heritage, an emotional sentiment which has driven many of these scholars to undertake the study of archaeology. Cambodian archaeologists have no reason to hide their goals of bolstering and promoting an ethnic identity that draws from the achievements of Khmer society and culture in historic and prehistoric times.
Ethno-cultural self-esteem rather than strict nationalism dominates the sentiments of the Cambodians interviewed for this paper. These archaeologists seem to be less devoted to the nation of Cambodia than to the ethnic group of Khmer people. The roles of the various other ethnic groups in Cambodian archaeology remain unclear. One of the Khmer archaeologists interviewed, Tea Van, characterized Khmer archaeology as driven by ethnic and cultural pride rather than nationalistic allegiance. He feels that true ownership of the Khmer past rests with the Khmer people rather than with the Cambodian government.15 Thus, the ethnic population, their cultural identity, and their heritage are collectively more important than the nation-state itself.
To some degree, the notion of ethnic continuity has been extended even to prehistoric times. However, while the origins of agriculture in the region are an important regional achievement, the spectacular and monumental accomplishments of the historic polities, rather than early traditions, are the primary sources of Khmer ancestral pride. The majestic monuments of the historic Khmer Empire have understandably drawn a great deal of attention from around the world. The study of these monuments and associated inscriptions has dominated Cambodian archaeology from the days of French occupation (if not earlier) to the present. Some of the Cambodians interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with the discipline's history-based character, expressly for its failure to provide practical experience in methods and techniques of data recovery and analysis. Chan To and Chheang Serei Vuthy argue that this type of study "is not real archaeology," suggesting that "real archaeology" is anthropological and scientific rather than humanities-based. While Tea Van's specific area of interest and expertise is in the temples of the Angkorean period, he acknowledges that more attention must be directed to earlier sites, as documentation of the prehistoric record in Cambodia is meager compared to the body of knowledge on the historic period. Although the long-standing historical emphasis of Cambodian archaeology omits important aspects of the discipline, it acknowledges the potential of relevant humanities-related disciplines, an acknowledgment which is noticeably absent in American archaeology. When viewed in a positive light, Cambodian archaeology approaches the study of the past from a holistic, multidisciplinary framework, which embraces a wide range of strategies for explaining, preserving, and, perhaps, creating the country's cultural heritage.
Chheang Serei Vuthy studies archaeology out of a desire to save Cambodia's monuments, to reconstruct the lifestyles of the ancient Cambodians, and to write the history of Cambodia for later generations. It is essential that this chronicle of cultural fluorescence and change be written by indigenous scholars, especially in light of the fact that the majority of Cambodian history written to date has been authored by the French during the colonial period.
Tea Van is primarily concerned with the dissemination of archaeological information as a method for curbing the destruction of cultural resources. He feels that his mission as an archaeologist is to share information with the Khmer people, especially "the young generation," in order to raise public consciousness of the priceless value of their cultural heritage. Young Cambodians often do not realize that their own ancestors were the architects and builders of the monumental architecture that still stands today. Thus, they lack a vital connection with their past. Tea Van argues that an informed populace, proud and protective of its heritage, will be less likely to illegally extract archaeological artifacts for sale to traders and collectors of antiquities. These invaluable items are often exchanged with black-market antiquities dealers for hard currency, offsetting the economic hardship experienced by many Cambodians.16
Most Cambodian people are proud of their own culture, especially of the monumental architecture at Angkor Wat. However, several factors contribute to the widespread unauthorized excavation of archaeological sites by Khmers themselves. Both the current economic situation and the lack of public education resulting from a long period of war contribute to the destruction of archaeological resources. From approximately 1975 to the present, the looting and senseless destruction of archaeological sites, as well as the subsequent trafficking of cultural assets abroad, expanded in disastrous proportions. Today, vandalism and theft continue to erode Cambodia's cultural heritage.17 Current protective legislation is difficult to enforce, suggesting that alternatives to punitive action are warranted. All of the Khmer students interviewed consider public education, essentially the communication of the collective value of their own cultural heritage, as a priority in the retardation of this rampant destruction.
The on-going collaborative project at the Funan site of Angkor Borei hopes to eventually establish a museum and heritage center located in the present-day town of Angkor Borei in order to further the education of the local population. This facility will ostensibly aid in the preservation of archaeological remains. It will also attempt to discourage looting and destruction of these remains by promoting local pride in the cultural heritage of the city.18
At Angkor Borei, archaeologists have explained that they are seeking information rather than gold. However, many villagers are still unsure that archaeological research relates to them. Chheang Serei Vuthy describes the ultimate aim of this project as the reconstruction of Khmer history and background in order to maintain and strengthen the collective Khmer identity. He sees the dissemination of the information gathered through archaeology as a primary goal. He states: "We spread information to those people, and I think that, if the University of Hawai'i continues to work in Angkor Borei with Cambodian students, the villagers will gain more knowledge about our work."19 Local people are paid wages for non-technical tasks such as the clearing of ground cover and basic excavation. It is vital to inform everyone involved about the reasons for the project. While many villagers hired in this respect may have previously engaged in unauthorized excavation, the Angkor Borei Project has attempted to promote the alternative rewards of knowledge and information. It is hoped that locals educated in close cooperation with project staff will spread the word about conservation to family members upon returning home.20
As in the United States, the discipline of archaeology itself is frequently misunderstood in Cambodia. Chheang Serei Vuthy states that "most Cambodian people do not know what archaeology is or what archaeologists do."21 Excavation is generally viewed as a profit-motivated endeavor that non-professionals frequently engage in for the sake of obtaining marketable antiquities. Widely held misconceptions that archaeologists dig for gold and valuable objects hinder public education of the scientific nature of archaeological research and illustrate the need for increased communication. While scientific research can shed new light on the past, it is imperative that archaeologists acknowledge and incorporate local knowledge. A community education program would ideally serve as a two way exchange and provide a vehicle for the sharing of the particular knowledge and experience of local residents as well as archaeologists.
The education and positive involvement of local communities in archaeological research and heritage management presents a formidable but necessary challenge. Economic pressure to extract artifacts for profit must be replaced by alternative methods of obtaining cash, perhaps with an emphasis on production rather than destruction. For example, the increased production of traditional ceramics could partially satisfy outside demand for Khmer material culture while providing a source of revenue for local artisans. In addition, the international demand for illicit antiquities must also be reduced. On the local level, educational programs fostering collective community stewardship of cultural resources could begin with young people in the schools. In order to effectively reach the adult population, alternative strategies must be explored. Bong Sovath has suggested that collaboration on awareness-raising programs with influential community leaders and institutions, such as Buddhist monks and temples, would be an effective approach. The development of local museums and heritage centers may also serve to increase public awareness and participation in the management of Cambodian heritage. These possibilities are congruent with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture's plan to develop community-managed Sala Vapathor (Culture Houses) as centers for the rejuvenation of Khmer culture beginning at the village level.22
Chan To is involved in archaeology not only to educate his compatriots but also to inform the world about the unique cultural identity of the Khmer people. Although Cambodia is poor today, it was once a prosperous fluorescence of culture. Monuments remain standing to this day as proof to the people of the world that Cambodia was a great and independent civilization in the past.23 While somewhat wary of tourism, Khmer archaeologists acknowledge the visitation of foreigners as a part of the process of sharing their cultural heritage. Their aims are similar to those of Mexican archaeologists who seek to "assert Mexico's cultural distinctiveness to the rest of the world" as part of an effort to develop archaeological sites as instructional and entertainment facilities for both the indigenous population and foreign tourists.24
Tea Van strongly feels that it is vital to limit the number of tourists who visit Angkor Wat. Mounting tides of visitors have a significant impact on the resource, literally eroding the monuments with each footstep. While the revenue generated from tourism constitutes an important source of financial support for the staff and their preservation efforts, Tea Van argues that the reduction and control of human impact on cultural resources takes precedence over the economic rewards of tourism. He feels that the proposed sound and light show at Angkor Wat is disrespectful, inappropriate, and conducive to the destruction of the site,25 a sentiment shared by archaeologists throughout Southeast Asia. Fortunately, some foreign visitors to Cambodia bring ideas and expertise which can assist in the research and preservation of archaeological resources.
An increasing number of collaborative research and preservation projects involve both Khmer and foreign archaeologists. Cambodians have their own heritage, but they lack the specific training and the funding required to conduct the necessary research.26 All of the Khmer scholars interviewed regarded the cooperation and assistance of the international archaeological community as a positive step in the development of their archaeological proficiency. Some see this as a necessary step en route to a completely indigenous archaeological effort in Cambodia, while one scholar feels that collaborative research should remain at the forefront.
The current excavation at Angkor Borei is an example of a collaborative project which seeks to continue cooperative archaeology over an extended time period. This project represents a joint effort between the University of Hawai'i, the East-West Center, Northern Illinois University, and the Cambodian Ministry of Culture. The Angkor Borei Project seeks to "regenerate indigenous professional capabilities in archeology and preservation that were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge."27 An integral part of this project, the training of Cambodian university students, aims to build the level of technical expertise in Cambodian researchers, facilitating future collaborative and specifically indigenous Khmer projects.
Tea Van predicts a steady increase in the number and variety of foreign archaeologists who collaborate as peers with a growing number of Khmer archaeologists. He also anticipates a heightened emphasis on inquiries into the prehistoric past of the region as well as continued research and preservation efforts at Angkor Wat and other historic monuments.
Chan To and Chheang Serei Vuthy advocate an eventual shift of the majority of research responsibilities to indigenous archaeologists. To a large degree, this vision is a driving force in their careers. As Chheang Serei Vuthy says: "We want to do everything by ourselves, that is why we learn and study hard."28 They look to Indonesia as an example of a country which has developed a strong national archaeological program initiated with the assistance of European scholars but presently managed independently.
The Khmer archaeologists interviewed have all trained with American archaeologists, but the training received to date has been primarily in the descriptive and extractive areas of mapping, data recording, and excavation. They want to move beyond this "preliminary work" and engage in analysis and interpretation. Understandably frustrated with their present lack of expertise in analyzing their own artifacts, they are not satisfied with their current dependence on foreign scientists for analysis. The export of their artifacts to other nations for analysis is another source of consternation. These Cambodian scholars would much rather undertake artifact analysis in their own country, but they lack the facilities, equipment, and technical experience necessary to do so.
Bong Sovath stresses the need for continuing cooperation between Cambodians and foreigners. He feels that the responsibilities of research design, planning, excavation, analysis, and authorship should be equally shared by Khmer and foreign principal investigators. Bong Sovath views cooperation with foreign archaeologists as the key to remedying the current lack of resources and facilities for analysis and curation in Cambodia. Laboratories, equipment, technical and theoretical instruction, and international recognition can all be obtained through continued collaboration with foreign archaeologists.29
Archaeology is on the rise in Cambodia. The cultural achievements of the past are becoming increasingly vital to the future of the nation and the Khmer people. Community education and public stewardship of cultural resources are emerging as essential keys to the successful management of Cambodia's tremendous heritage. Motivated by nationalist and cultural pride, Khmer archaeologists employ the tools of archaeological inquiry in the reinterpretation of a history subjected to colonial interpretation and the destructive forces of civil war. These scholars express a strong desire to work with foreign researchers in the spirit of collaborative cooperation. For some, this collaboration is part of a transitional period that will culminate in the independent indigenous control and management of their own cultural resources. The voices of these Khmer archaeologists clarify the need for foreign researchers to acknowledge their role as facilitators of active indigenous inquiry, interpretation, and stewardship of Cambodia's invaluable cultural heritage.
1 Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
2 The term "Khmer" is used interchangeably in this paper with the term "Cambodian," to refer to the language and to the majority population of Cambodia. However, it is important to note that the name "Cambodia" refers to a governmentally organized nation, whereas the name "Khmer," or more accurately "Khmae," refers to the ethnicity, culture, and language of the major ethnic group in the nation of Cambodia. Verbally, ethnic Khmers often refer to their country as "Srok-Khmae," literally "country of the Khmae people," rather than Cambodia.
3 Bong Sovath, interview by author, 25 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
4 Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
5 Bong Sovath, interview by author, 25 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording; and Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
6 The terms "prehistory" and "prehistoric" are used in this paper to refer to cultural traditions which predate the use of written records and are not meant to devalue the heritage of indigenous Southeast Asians.
7 SEAMES, Final Report: Preparatory Conference on the Restoration and Animation of Historical Sites, vol. 2 (for the purpose of establishing in Phnom Penh and Applied Research Center for Archaeology and Fine Arts) Organized jointly by the Government of the Khmer Republic and SEAMES, 1972.
8 Wilhelm G. Solheim, "Archaeology and Anthropology in Southeast Asia," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 18, no. 2 (1987): 175-181.
9 O. P. Paliwal, Cambodia, Past and Present (New Delhi: Lancer International, 1991), 41.
10 P. Bion Griffin, M. T. Stark and J. Ledgerwood, "Research, Education, and Cultural Resource Management at Angkor Borei, Cambodia," Cultural Resource Management (1996): 37-41.
11 Milton Osborne, Southeast Asia: An Introductory History (St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 198.
12 Bong Sovath, interview by author, Honolulu, Hawai'i, 25 November 1996.
13 Bruce G. Trigger, "Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist," Man 19 (1984): 356.
14 Trigger, "Alternative," 356.
15 Tea Van, interview by author, 20 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
16 Tea Van, interview by author, 20 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
17 Chan To, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
18 Griffin et al., "Research," 37-41.
19 Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
20 Chan To, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording; Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
21 Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
22 The Honorable Nouth Narang (Minister of Culture, Kingdom of Cambodia). "Culture Preservation in Cambodia." Paper presented at Southeast Asian Heritage: Preservation, Conservation, and Management Conference. Honolulu, Hawai'i, 8 March 1997.
23 Chan To, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording; Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
24 Trigger, "Alternative," 338.
25 Tea Van, interview by author, 20 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
26 Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
27 Griffin et al., "Research," 37.
28 Chheang Serei Vuthy, interview by author, 18 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.
29 Bong Sovath, interview by author, 25 November 1996, Honolulu, tape recording.