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Phnom Pel: A Perplexing Graveyard in the Cambodian Jungle

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Asia Life

Phnom Pel: A Perplexing Graveyard in the Cambodian Jungle

A graveyard in Cambodia’s mountains has enchanted explorers for years.

For a country that is roughly the size of Oklahoma, Cambodia’s 69,898 square miles of land are rife with antiquities. Fresh on the heels of archaeologists’ discovery of Mahendraparvata, a lost jungle city in the vicinity of Angkor Wat, yet another enigmatic site in the depths of Cambodia’s wilderness has received renewed international attention: a graveyard called Phnom Pel.

The discovery of a burial ground dating to the Angkor ear would be significant in itself. But this is no ordinary necropolis. At Phnom Pel, more than 100 burial jars and a dozen coffins have been tucked away on a 100-meter high ledge in a faraway corner of the Cardamom Mountains in the nation’s southwest. Photos of both the burial jars and miniature coffins, which suggest they are just big enough to hold bones, but not a fully formed skeleton, can be seen here.

A total of ten such sites have been found in the region. To date, experts remain baffled as to the background and motivation that prompted the burials, in a Buddhist country where cremation is common practice. Chief among those trying to unravel the mystery is New Zealander archaeologist Nancy Beavan.

For the past seven years Beavan has been sifting through the evidence in an attempt to conceive of possible motivations for painstakingly placing the remains so high above the ground. An expert in carbon dating, Beavan estimates that some of the bones date back six centuries. Villagers living near the sites where the bones rest have stayed out of Beavan’s way and allowed her crew to work.

But why put them in jars? “This was a practice that was not observed in any other part of Cambodia,” she said. Of the jars found, ten of them date from the 15th-17th centuries. Some are believed to have come from the kingdom of Siam that originated in modern-day Thailand, while others are believed to date further back to Angkor.

Beavan posits the theory that the burial practice could have simply been the result of isolation from the rest of the Khmer Empire that held sway in the region between the 9th and 15th centuries. “They have nothing to do with the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Angkor but lived in his shadow,” she said. “Who knows, maybe they were also slaves fleeing the Angkor kingdom.”

When fishermen in Koh Kong Province scooped up similar jars left by a shipwreck in their nets, Beavan had a light bulb moment. Perhaps the jars reached the Cardamom Mountains via traders who ventured to the remote region in search of jungle bounty in the forms of ivory and wood.

Artifacts from the wreckage have been sitting in storage at the Provincial Court since 2007, as officials drag their feet on whether to open a museum. When combined with the stunning biodiversity and natural beauty of the surroundings, there is great potential for tourism. In 2012, 100,000 people visited the area.

As if piecing together an answer was not challenging enough, they are doing so on limited time. UNESCO is attempting to list the mountains as a “biosphere reserve” – a case that may be bolstered by the graveyard finding. But development of the region continues at an alarming pace – much of it by Chinese organizations (see “Saving the Buddhas of Mes Aynak”).

The lack of records, combined with the mysterious placement of the bones in such a remote spot and the encroachment of development will likely keep archaeologists on their toes for the foreseeable future.