Newsletter Article

The Plunder of Angkor

by Dr. Dougald O'Reilly

ruined artifacts

Cambodia is famed for its jungle clad temples and each year increasing numbers of people are drawn to the ancient capital of Angkor. The extensive complex is packed with sandstone and laterite temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries.

Today most temples are devoid of statuary and tourists interested in viewing the sculptural achievements of the ancient Khmer must visit the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital. Many more sculptures are housed at the Conservation d'Angkor in Siem Reap and await the construction of a new museum near the temple complex.

looted treasure

The statues have been removed from their original locations to protect them from theft. Cambodia's cultural heritage has long been a target of thieves but the losses increased in the last few decades as the international art market came to appreciate the beauty of Cambodia's past. During the 1990's art dealers would show prospective clients photographs of Angkor's temples and steal to order, hacking away lintels or carving apsara dancers from walls. So voracious were the thieves that they even stole the head of the 'leper king', perhaps not realizing it was a concrete reproduction! The original is safely ensconced in the National Museum.

No temple has been more thoroughly pillaged than Prasat Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. Reports indicate that in 2003, armed men surrounded this remote jungle temple while looters worked through the night. By the morning hardly a single carved figure was left on the walls. Today, visitors stumble over piles of new rubble to view the gaping wounds where once, exquisite carvings were.

lost artifact
Lost Forever!

Looters have also been active at Banteay Chmar, a sprawling temple in the north west of Cambodia where a huge section of the temple's enclosure wall was removed. Fortunately the truck carrying the blocks was stopped at the Thai border and the wall recovered. Again the remains are housed in the National Museum.

The rapacious destruction of Cambodia's heritage is not restricted to monumental sites alone. Looters are also destroying many prehistoric sites. One such site is Phum Snay in Cambodia's northwest. Antiquities dealers encouraged the villagers at Snay to loot the cemetery which dates to the Iron Age (c. AD 300-600). Countless burials were unearthed and the bones strewn across the fields. The looters were searching for glass beads, pottery, and bronze and iron implements. This incredible site, which contained the remains of warriors, is crucial to the understanding of the development of Angkor but now the opportunity is lost.

The trade in antiquities is fuelled by demand. Upscale shops in Bangkok's River City or in Singapore are the main outlet for stolen antiquities. While these shops may have a veil of respectability they are highly unscrupulous. Many of the pieces on display are reproductions sold to unsuspecting buyers as authentic artifacts. Working in collusion with shipping companies these dealers reap huge profits from the theft of priceless pieces of art from an impoverished developing nation. Cambodia must retain its cultural heritage.

It is important for visitors to Southeast Asia to understand that the pieces they see for sale are either stolen or counterfeit. The latter is more likely unless buyers are recognized as serious collectors. Smaller items, such as beads, from archaeological sites are probably genuine and represent the destruction of our only chance to understand the rise of the state in Southeast Asia. The casual purchase of a string of beads, or a pot, results in further looting. In Cambodia it is illegal to purchase, sell or traffic antiquities and is punishable by imprisonment.

stolen treasure for sale
For Sale!

If you think that you are being sold an antiquity, please do not buy it. You came to Southeast Asia to visit the splendors of the ancient past, please leave something for the next visitor to marvel at.

Dougald O'Reilly is a Canadian citizen and received his PhD in Archaeology from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. His PhD research involved a Bronze Age site in northeastern Thailand called Ban Lum Khao and an Iron Age site called Non Muang Kao. He examined the social and political changes between these periods using data from the cemeteries at each site. Since graduating in 2000 He has lived in Cambodia. O'Reilly came to work as a UNESCO lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts teaching archaeology as part of a capacity building project sponsored by the Toyota Foundation. Whilst lecturing at the RUFA he led the excavation of Phum Snay, located in northwestern Cambodia. The site was already badly looted and he and his students carried out a rescue excavation on the prehistoric cemetery over three seasons.

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