The new Living in the Shadow of Angkor exhibit reveals long-hidden secrets about Cambodia’s 15th to 17th century ethnic minorities, through their unique jar burial rituals. Writer Joanna Mayhew speaks with principal investigator and radiocarbon dating specialist Dr Nancy Beavan. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

What has been discovered?
We have found an extensive network of burial sites – natural rock ledges, upon which sit large ceramic water jars and wooden coffins, into which human bone has been placed. We know of 11 sites spread out over the easternmost extent of the Cardamom Mountain range. The timespan is from about 1400 to 1650 AD. [This] is significant because then you can compare what was happening [amongst ethnic minorities] with what was happening in the rest of Khmer culture.

The burials were first referenced in the 1970s. It was investigated, but then no more. In 2000, forest rangers began to find more. A National Geographic documentary [was] done in 2003, [and] I was asked to do the radiocarbon dating. After the documentary, no more research was going to be done, but I wanted to pursue what I thought was a marvellous new find.

What do they indicate?
Studying a burial ritual gives you significant clues about what the culture believed and valued, because when we send off our dead we try to do for them the things that are most important. In the burials, they gave single copper rings, glass beads. But most dramatically, they put the bones into jars that come from Ayatthaya, in current-day Thailand. These jars were part of the trade along the Gulf of Thailand. Making the effort to obtain the jars and putting them on remote cliff faces to protect them says a lot. The fact that the highlanders had connections to maritime trading is very interesting. We might think of highland people as being isolated, and yet they had created networks just like lowland society. Putting bones into jars is an indication they followed animist practices [and] were not influenced by the Hindu/Buddhist culture that permeated the lowlands.

What’s it like working with skeletons?
When we go to any burial site, the first thing we do is a ceremony to the neak ta spirits of the forest. We light incense; give them food, coca cola, cigarettes. We tell the spirits we mean only to find out about them, and that we will protect them and the place they rest. That respect makes me feel secure about working with old bones in remote places. My feeling about working with these human remains is one of awe, respect and privilege. Those feelings have driven the design of all the work we do.

How has the research been done?
[It’s] some of the most difficult archaeological fieldwork you can imagine. We do all of the analysis of skeletons, sampling for radiocarbon dating and conservation of ceramics in the jungle. That involves motos piled with 100kg of supplies, going up rutted mountain paths, sleeping under plastic sheeting, eating dried fish, and hoping we have enough water to complete the mission. Twice we have used a helicopter to get to the most remote site. We stay on site so that at the end we can put the bones back into their respective jars and put these back where we found them – because to take anything else from these sites would destroy them. The most important thing for our project was not only to record the history, but to preserve it.

What is one memorable experience?
In 2010, it was our first go at extensive fieldwork, and every strange thing you can imagine happening did. The site was fantastic, right near this beautiful mountain stream. I go into the stream, immediately fall, and break my wrist. Though my teammates encouraged me to go back, I refused. Then somehow I got a moth stuck in my ear for two days. And on the next-to-final night, I was awakened because an elephant was trying to get through our camp. But [the experience] was wonderful because that’s where we began to find the similarity of the burial practice across other sites.

Why is the exhibit important?
The exhibit is the combination of our 10 years of research. It began with years of me coming on my work vacations to do research. In 2010, an Australian research fund gave us money to do fieldwork; two years later we got funding from the Royal Society of New Zealand. The research opens a window on yet another part of Khmer history during a significant period – the decline of Angkor and the transition to international trade. Very rarely do we get to tell the histories of the common people, and these histories are as significant as those of the great monument builders.

How does it feel to finish?
I feel so privileged to have realised the extent of work and to lay that groundwork for future researchers. After I did the radiocarbon date, it just became an absolute passion. The fact that we investigated 11 sites to be able to tell pieces of what must be a much bigger story, that is my proudest accomplishment. But to everything there is a season. In January, I go back to New Zealand. I’m awaiting funding for other projects. Until [then], I will relax.

The exhibition runs until Dec. 26 at the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.