Friday, April 06, 2007

Pottier on the trail of secrets

One of the major players in uncovering the secrets of the ancient Khmer Kingdom is Christophe Pottier, the head of the EFEO delegation in Siem Reap. He's been based in Cambodia for many years now and has been working closely with the Cambodian government to shed light on the country's history and ancient culture. His most recent excavations have been taking place in the Roluos area and particularly at Prasat Prei Monti, a small temple I visited a few years ago, which sits in a quiet wooded area and is rarely visited by tourists.

Roluos Temples: The search for the royal palace - by Frederic Amat of Cambodge Soir (translation from French by Luc Sâr)

While working in Cambodia with his team, Christophe Pottier, a member of the French School in the Extreme Orient (EFEO), discovered an archeological site in the Angkor area, Siem Reap, containing elements suggesting the presence of a royal palace in the past.
A group of temples located 16 kilometers from Siem Reap, the Roluos group reveals each year more secrets. Christophe Pottier, a member of the EFEO, and his team consisting of archeologists for the Apsara Authority, were involved in the excavations since four years ago in this area which locks up remnants of the first capital of the Angkorian kingdom. After probing areas next to the imposing Bakong mountain-temple, and a village site in Trapeang Phong, the team is trying to locate this year the site of the royal palace, the work was financed by the Excavation Commission of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to an old hypothesis which was never checked, the palace would be located at the Prei Monti site, a few hundred meters only from the Bakong temple.
The first excavation campaign ended up in Prei Monti. In plastic bags laid along the walls of the excavation trench which was dug up since the beginning of this month, the number artifacts found increases. They have no commercial value but they reveal a new page in the history of the kingdom.These are probably the cases of these numerous small fragments of ceramics which were most likely imported from the Middle-East. “In seven years of excavation in sites from similar era, I only found two shards of these ceramics, but nothing yet in Roluos. Therefore, they are hard to find, but here, there several dozens of them. There are also numerous shards of porcelain imported from China, this type has never been found before in Angkor. These foreign ceramics were most likely reserved for the use by the elite. To find them here is a major discovery which suggests the presence of a palace,” Christophe Pottier explained while holding between his fingers small dark yellow shards covered with shiny turquoise green color.
This discovery clearly illustrates that beyond the privileged relationships with China and India, Angkor, in its beginning, had access to a trade network which extended all the way to the Middle East. Cambodia was connected, like its neighboring countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, to a vast maritime network of commercial trades. “We also found a large amount of tiny fragments of mother-of-pearl, coming maybe from an inlaid wood workshop for furniture, and also numerous glass pearls. These objects are also usually very rare on other sites in Roluos. Their concentration in Prei Monti suggests, just like the imported ceramics, a true luxury which brings to mind the presence of a royal palace. Only such locations could hold so much wealth,” the researcher added. “We would thus be at the location where the Hariharalaya palace once stood. Hariharalaya was the first capital of Angkor where Jayavarman II lived. It would be dated to the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth century!”
This exceptional discovery with multiple repercussions took place on a site which presents little value at first sight. Located in a sparse forest, at the end of a road, three brick towers which are in ruins and obviously unfinished by their builders, lie next to an important basin where sandstone blocks were carved out from the massive rock. That is all there is, at least to the untrained eyes. But for the EFEO researcher knows the location by heart. He spent long hours looking for clues along the forest clearings and rice fields. For an archeologist, the land topography is also an element as important as the pottery shards or the bricks found on the surface. For three months long, a survey was meticulously conducted in the inside perimeter of the site, i.e. over more than 30 hectares area.
“The survey of aerial photos showed long ago that the small Prei Monti temple was located outside a vast perimeter wall which was marked by a trench. The dimensions of the perimeter wall are similar to that of the one surrounding the royal palace of Angkor Thom, which we know somewhat about. But our recent survey indicated the presence at the center of the forest, of a clear high point, a rectangular platform of 180-meter by 300-meter. Of course, we did excavate a first trench this year. It reveals some trace of buildings, but other excavations are needed to reveal the floor plan of such a vast palace,” the researcher said. In fact, if the sandstone and brick temples survived through the centuries, nothing remained anymore from the palaces of the Angkorian kings, which were built using wood. How was the court life organized? What were the sizes of the buildings? What’s the use of these buildings? … These are the many questions that will have to wait for an answer until more excavations will be completed. “What is most fascinating in all of this, it is to find a palace site without even knowing what it would look like,” the researcher conceded.

Profile: Associate Professor Christophe Pottier re-established the EFEO research center in Siem Reap in 1992, and is currently Director of that facility. He is an expert on Khmer architecture and archaeology. He has directed important works of reconstruction and conservation at Angkor, in particular on the Elephant Terrace which forms the 500m frontage to the Royal Palace. His research identified a new sequence of complex occupations at that site. He has reassessed the earlier archaeological sequence of Angkor, especially at Rolûos (8th to 11th centuries). His 1999 PhD thesis, An Archaeological Map of the Angkor region - South Area, fundamentally transformed the understanding of the residential and social organisation of Angkor. He is also co-Director of the Greater Angkor Project.

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