In Cambodia’s remote Cardamom Mountains, archaeologists have quietly been investigating a mysterious pre-Angkorian culture that left few clues
Words and photography by Pete Ford, Additional reporting by Prum Bandiddh
Nestled in rock crevices and shallow caves across Cambodia’s Cardamom mountain range are hundreds of jars and wooden coffins containing human and animal bones. The sites vary in size, elevation and the condition of their artefacts, and all require ladders and crouching to access.
Apart from a handful of ancient rock paintings in the northeast of the mountains, the 18 known jar burial sites are the only evidence discovered so far of pre-20th century habitation in the Cardamoms.
French ethnographer Marie Martin was the first Westerner to write about the “bones in caves” she’d heard of while researching Cardamom tribal groups in the 1970s. Reports of burial jars weren’t officially recorded until 2000, when the Cambodian government set up the Cardamom Conservation Program. Subsequent surveys located sites and looked into ties to Angkor Wat.
Local residents, often from the Chong ethnic group, have also discovered more sites while exploring forests in search of animals and rare wood. Chong legends place their arrival in the Cardamoms in the 15th century, and though they don’t claim to be related to the creators of the burial sites, Chong families in Chi Phat share stories of their origins.
“A long time ago, there was just sea here, and today’s mountains were like islands where the people lived,” Chhoeung “Pu” Khan, head of jar conservation for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told Discover. “Local people think that no one would hike with these jars into the forest. It is too difficult, so it must have happened by boat. Now these jars are all that is left of them.” Chhoeung, an ethnic Chong and local tour guide, has lived in the village of Chi Phat, in the southern foothills of the Cardamoms, since 1979. One of his jobs is to protect the sites.
Carbon dating of the clay jars, wooden coffins and human and animal remains reveals that they were likely put there between 400 and 600 years ago, and that the people had access to ocean fish to eat. It also revealed that the jars came mostly from kilns in Cambodia and Thailand, though the burial sites also contain Chinese and Burmese pottery fragments and glass and copper jewelry, suggesting even further trade links with Laos, China, India and Sumatra.
The bodies at the sites had gone through a laborious reburial of already decomposed bodies, a practice that has been seen in Laos, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines and Borneo as well.
Tep Sokha, a ceramics conservator and archaeologist at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, oversees the ministry’s cataloguing and restoration of hundreds of artefacts discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Koh Kong. His theory on who placed the bones in the jars and coffins seems to point at the Chong and their 15th century exodus into the forests and hills.
“I think people first moved from the lowland areas into the Cardamoms, hence the Angkorian jars and the coffins,” he said. “Later, when trade links were established, they were able to trade forest products like honey, ivory and tiger skins for goods, including beads and jars we see at the sites.”
The carbon dating, led by radiocarbon specialist Dr. Nancy Beavan of Otago University in New Zealand and a team of local and international experts, is critical to understanding highland culture. As the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat was increasingly threatened by Ayutthayan expansion, so the Kingdom shifted its capital to sites at Oudong and Longvek. The artefacts in the Cardamom burial sites offer the only known clues about the people who created the new capitals.
“The Cardamom Mountain jar and coffin burial sites may comprise the only remaining evidence of highland ethnic minority practice in the late- to post-Angkorian period, and of a people whose lives were contemporary with, yet a world apart, from Angkor,” Beavan wrote in a 2015 research paper published in the journal Radiocarbon.
Protecting the sites, some more than a week’s trek through thick forest, is no easy task for Pu Khan and his two assistants, but he takes pride in helping to preserve these historic and spiritual places.
Chong residents revere the jar burial sites as the sacred home of neak ta prey, or forest spirits. Some older members of the community make the difficult daylong trek to the Phnom Pel jar site, where they leave ceremonial offerings of food and drink and burn sandalwood incense. The betel leaves that are part of their offerings to the spirits can be found locally only near the jar sites. Pu Khan doesn’t believe the close proximity of the betel trees to the jar sites is a coincidence.
“We don’t have any of these plants near Chi Phat, so they are not native to the area and had to be brought to the jar sites [initially],” Pu Khan explained.
“Everywhere [that] there are jars, there are betel plants. So I think that shows that people lived near there” – suggesting the jar sites used to be much closer to human habitation than they are now.
Wide-scale forest clearance around Chi Phat began in the 1970s when Khmer Rouge commanders ordered large communal farms to be built. Logging on legal land concessions in the 1980s, followed by rampant illegal logging in the 1990s, saw large swathes of the forest around Chi Phat cleared. It was the search for the increasingly rare sandalwood in the early 2000s that led to the rediscovery of the Phnom Pel site.
Support for ecotourism in Chi Phat and education outreach in the community are part of a long-term plan to reduce the economic pressures that have pushed residents into the forest to find sources of income. Tom Gray, Wildlife Alliance’s director of Science and Global Development, said the jar burial sites have become “a key part of the community ecotourism package” for Chi Phat residents.
“We believe that documenting the historical and cultural value of the landscape is a critical part of the overall value of the Cardamom landscape,” Gray told Discover. “It is this combination of ecotourism, with genuine community benefits and law enforcement, which has allowed the protection of the environment and cultural heritage surrounding Chi Phat.”
Of the 3,000 visitors each year, some 20% are Cambodian. The rest are foreign tourists attracted to the waterfalls, forests and wildlife. According to local ecotourism official Mao Phearun, the Okei burial site had 288 visitors between January and May 2018, with 28 venturing to the Phnom Pel site.
While the numbers are tiny compared to Cambodia’s overall tourism numbers – the country saw more than 5.6 million tourists in 2017 – it is a sizable number for a community of only 663 families.
“Visitors to Cambodia are increasingly looking for more authentic and off-beat experiences away from Siem Reap that include lesser-known historical sites and closer access to the country’s beautiful nature,” said Ethan Crawley of the Cambodian travel outfit ABOUTAsia Travel.
While increasing numbers of Cambodians and tourists are able to see these special sites of Cambodian history, the fact remains that very little is known about who put the bones of already decomposed humans and animals in the wooden coffins and jars and placed them in such remote locations, or why.
With new archaeological excavations at Longvek and Angkor Wat continuing to add to the canon of knowledge about Cambodia’s history, both Tep Sokha and Dr. Nancy Beavan agree that more funding for studies and analysis of the jar burial sites would offer more information.
That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, said Sokha.
“The people who made the Cardamom sites will remain a mystery for now.”
This story was originally published on Discover magazine 2019 vol.