Artifact looting ruins Cambodia's archaeology sites


Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 6

At a bustling market in the capital city, Cambodia's heritage is being sold off: ancient beads are snapped up at two for US$1, while US$15 buys a 3,500-year-old stone tool.

Sales of such antiquities are booming at markets across the kingdom, robbing it of a rich history archaeologists are only beginning to study after decades of conflict ended here in 1998.

Ceramic pots and bronze bracelets may seem innocuous spoils compared with the stunning statuary prized by "tomb raiders," but their theft from underground sites means Cambodia's prehistory is being irretrievably lost, experts say.

"Most archaeologists are not really interested in finding a giant statue of Buddha or a single magnificent artefact. We're interested in spatial context," says Kyle Latinis, a US archaeologist specializing in Southeast Asia.

For items such as humble beads or tools to be useful to historians, they must be studied and assessed while still in the ground.

But with mines being cleared across war-ravaged Cambodia, farmers are clearing formerly dangerous land and uncovering artefacts they quickly pass to middlemen. And when archaeologists are called in, their finds fall prey to looters.

"We can't make head or tail out of a site that's been looted. It's killing historical interpretation," laments Latinis, who acknow-ledges that desperately poor Cambodians are often compelled to sell their finds.

The middlemen move the artefacts to local markets, where they are affordable enough for both Cambodians and tourists to buy, or they shift into the international black market, which is as yet unquantified and unstudied.

UNESCO removed the majestic Angkor Wat temple complex, the country's most treasured landmark, from its World Heritage in Danger list this month, de-scribing its preservation as "a success story."

Illicit excavation, pillaging and landmines were the main threats that put the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire on the list in the first place. Angkor Wat, founded in the ninth century, is Cambodia's main tourist destination today.

Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, which is working to protect Cambodia's buried cultural riches, emphasizes the global importance of this knowledge.

"In terms of world archaeolo-gy, Cambodia is an amazing gold mine, and it's completely unknown. Angkor is one of the greatest civilizations in the world, and as prehistorians we know nothing about how that came about."

Extensive burial sites containing huge iron swords and helmets decorated with buffalo horns -- items never before seen in the region -- have been wiped out by looters, O'Reilly says.

The new government's culture minister, Chuch Phoern, says the laws are excellent but police are untrained and citizens remain unaware of what antiquities should be protected.

"We plan under the new mandate of the government to educate people and inculcate deeply the laws concerning protection and preservation," he says.

Heritage Watch, formed earlier this year, also aims to educate villagers about the items' value and plans to establish museums in threatened areas.

O'Reilly says the hope is that such sites will generate long-term income.

"We'd like village people to make a living off that sustainable resource, thereby perhaps passing on the message that they don't need to loot the stuff and sell it so it's gone forever."