Monday, August 9, 2010

The Vat Komnou Cemetery

Most of our attention focused on archaeology excavations at Angkor Borei (Article).Cambodia has been a Buddhist country for nearly two millennia, with a three-year break in the 1970s associated with the Khmer Rouge period.

Nearly twenty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, Buddhist pagodas have been built or renovated throughout the countryside. Angkor Borei has two pagodas; one of them, Vat Komnou, lies on the south side of the river that bisects the settlement.

On private land that flanks the southern boundary of this vat, a landowner began removing soil in 1998 to create new house lots for his children. His workmen encountered burials and the district governor halted his operations.

We were invited to undertake systematic archaeological excavations in this area, and opened a test unit at the top of the slope. The upper layers of the unit contained construction fill, and we encountered portions of a cemetery approximately 3.5 meters into the matrix.

These burials lacked clear grave cuts, and were often interred in close proximity to each other. In some cases, bodies in the lower strata lacked skeletal parts from what we believe were subsequent interments in the same location. Please consult Andy Brouwer's web site to obtain more details on the Vat Komnou excavations.
Vat Komnou Cemetary Excavations.

The 1999-20000 excavations produced portions of at least 80 primary and secondary burials, the latter involving commingled, partial individuals. As the largest skeletal sample from Cambodia recovered through systematic archaeological excavations, the Vat Komnou cemetery offers an invaluable opportunity to assess the relative health of Mekong Delta populations from 200 BC – AD 200.

A preliminary skeletal analysis of the Vat Komnou cemetery was presented at the 2006 IPPA congress in Manila. Other research now in progress includes compositional studies of glass and carnelian beads recovered with the burials, technological, compositional and technological studies on the mortuary ceramic vessels (Article), and a zooarchaeological study of associated animal remains.

Our work constitutes the first archaeological excavation of that cultural layer at Angkor Borei, and the first systematic archaeology excavation of a cemetery of inhumations in Cambodian archaeology. Previous work at prehistoric sites like Samrong Sen and Mlu Prei recovered some human remains, but not large cemeteries.

Radiocarbon dates from the University of Waikato Radiocarbon Dating lab suggest the cemetery was used between c. 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. Research on materials from the Vat Komnou cemetery hold great importance for reconstructing the early historic period in the Mekong delta.

Previous work at Thai sites like Ban Don Ta Phet (by Ian Glover and his colleagues) provides material evidence for contact between South and Southeast Asia by c. 400 B.C. Yet the nature and intensity of this contact remains poorly understood.

The fact that we found inhumations, rather than cremations, may suggest that inhabitants of this cemetery did not fully embrace the Indic ideology that may have already permeated the region. It may also be possible that the cemetery section we excavated did not include elite burials, and perhaps elites practiced different mortuary traditions at this time that incorporated Indic ideology.

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