Let me share with you a positive article on Cambodia to somehow make up for the very sad event that recently happened in Phnom Penh. The day the news broke I saw the headlines on both Twitter and Yahoo!. The next day my friend who knows how much I “love Cambodia so much” shared the news with me AND my Khmer friend actually sms’d me straight from Cambodia to tell me about the news too. I seriously hope that no one among my Khmer friends were hurt. To give everyone a short break from all the Khmer tragedy, I’ll just blog about my personal experience excavating Angkor Wat this year.
So today I finally did my Binalot Talks presentation on my Cambodia trip. From July 12 – Aug. 8, 2010, I was very fortunate to become a crew member of the first ever archaeological team to excavate on Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure in the world that houses hundreds of Buddha statues and carvings of the Khmer history.
As an overview, the GAP or Greater Angkor Project is an organization composed of scholars from France, Cambodia, and Australia. Some of GAP’s resident archaeologists are Ang Choulean (an expert on Khmer history and anthropology), Dr. Li Baoping (an expert on Chinese ceramics analysis), Dougald O’Reilly (whose interests lie on Khmer Iron Age sites), Christophe Pottier (a Khmer expert on architecture and archaeology), and Damian Evans (whose expertise lie on remote sensing and regional survey). The aim of GAP is to better understand the reason behind the ancient civilization’s collapse between the 15th and 17th centuries by doing various archaeological methods, just to name a few. GAP works with the Authority for Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) and the University of Sydney. Together they explore the archaeology of Angkor as well as protect its cultural heritage. Visit GAP’s official website to know more about the organization.
The GAP 2010 Field Season was supervised by Dr. Miriam Stark from the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa and Chhay Rachna from APSARA. The 8 senior crew members who participated were Charlotte Minh Ha Pham (my roommate who specializes in marine archaeology), Charlotte Wong and Shawn Fehrenbach (both from UH), Jeanna Loyer (a newly-graduated French who is similarly interested in Human Osteology and Prehistory), Noel Hidalgo Tan and Nick Gani (both newly-graduated MA degree holders from Universiti Sains Malaysia), Thinguoc Mai Son (a newly-graduated half-Khmer/half-American), and me. The senior crew members stayed at the Robert Christie Research Centre while the RUFA students stayed at the EFEO headquarters. A total of 25 local Khmer excavators and pottery washers were employed though the number fluctuated from time to time as workers were added as more units were opened. Finally, a total of 13 undergraduate Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) students participated each week to gain field experience in archaeology.
The GAP 2010 crew opened a total of eight (8) units. Dougald O’Reilly excavated prior to our arrival and he opened the first unit located on the Western Gopura of Angkor Wat. Unit 2 lies a few meter adjacent to Unit 1 and these two units got the most number of visitors because this is the main entrance to the temple. The rest of the units experienced less disturbance from tourists as they were all situated at areas unfriendly to visitors. Units 3,4,5 and 6 were located at the Eastern Gopura so by the time tourists got to see our units, they were exhausted from all the walking they did on the temple – and touring Angkor Wat is no joke. A day isn’t enough to appreciate the vast and mind-blowing religious structure.
Our schedule is as follows:
630-7AM = (Yummy) Breakfast at camp
7-715AM = Head to the site
715-745 = Proceed to units
1230-230PM = Work
230-3PM = Pack up and go home
330-430/5PM = Bag and record artifacts, do photolog (Basic post-excavation paperworks)
5-6PM = Free time (Shower time, actually)
6-7PM = Dinner
7PM Onwards = Free time (Mostly consisted of beer-drinking and card-playing activities)
Excavation methods included archaeological survey, mapping, recording, coring, and actual excavations. Shawn and Charlotte were the ones primarily responsible for surveying and mapping transects on the NE and Eastern quadrants of Angkor Wat to find out which areas were conducive for archaeological excavation. They were assisted by Rachna and a couple of excavators because coring is actually hard work. Once cores were recorded, test units were set up (Units 3,4,5, 6, 7, & 8 ) and senior crew members were assigned to supervised their own units. Before being assigned to our own trenches, however, Dr. Stark made sure that we were comfortable and confident enough to handle our own teams. Additionally, we needed to learn the proper recording and bagging of artifacts – the paperworks, basically. I was assigned to supervise Units 4 & 5 and I eventually transferred to Unit 7. Char supervised Unit 3 while Mai and Jeanna were in charge of Units 4 and 6, respectively. Nick eventually ran Units 7 & 8 together with Charlotte.
The excavators who worked with us previously worked under Dougald O’Reilly so they were the ones who knew more about the units than we did. So equipped with sufficient archaeological excavations plus a good background of their own Khmer history, senior excavators Mr. Pov and Chenda were primarily the ones who interpreted the stratigraphy, features, and artifacts recovered from the site. Because the units were located so far from each other, updates were done over lunch and before packing up. Everyone returned to Unit 2 to pick up the tools and artifacts and other crew members as well. Instructions were given on the way to the site, when we were literally inside the vehicle. The senior crew members’ daily duties consisted of preparing the tools and paperworks, record, photograph, and measure layers, profile the unit, and bag artifacts. We were also instructed to help and teach RUFA students how to properly conduct an excavation. Basically, we just sat around as we watched the excavators and students work themselves off under the heat of the sun. It was a pity, actually, because some layers consisted of sandstone chips which were very hard to excavate. Even hoes gave up to these layers.
The day-to-day experience of seeing Angkor Wat AND excavating on the site is the most valuable experience one could ever have. I couldn’t help but gush over the magnificence of Angkor Wat and learn something new about its history and archaeology everyday. The Khmers are not only a group of happy people, but their hospitality transcends that of our own. The heat may have been the only objectionable part of visiting about Cambodia. It was so intense that the workers were so worried for us they had to be “umbrella men” while some of us were out in the sun. Boxes and boxes of water or tea were available at all times to make sure no passed out from too much heat. Complain about a headache or a stomachache and you will immediately be sent home (though I only got to use this card once – and I actually got sick on my last week there. Boo).
There is a lot more to be done for GAP Angkor Wat and I personally hope that I get to participate in future excavations again. I did not post the preliminary results of the project as they are still unpublished and despite Dr. Stark personally giving me a copy of her unpublished report, I deem it professional that she gets to share it to the online archaeological community first before I do since I only asked permission to use the report for my Binalot Talks presentation. So in summary, I thank you Angkor Wat for making me a better archaeological student. PROOF: I did not have any incomplete grades this semester. In fact, my grades soared high this semester. I even managed to complete a course I took last year. Fabulous. I love you Cambodia. I will see you soon.
*ALL PHOTOS ARE LINKED TO THE OWNERS