Piece by piece, Cambodia’s unique archaeological heritage up for grabs

At a bustling market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s heritage is being sold off, piece by piece: ancient beads are snapped up at two for a dollar, while 15 dollars secures a 3,500-year-old stone tool.

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

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, they 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, an American archaeologist specialising 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 once-forbidden 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 acknowledges how desperately-poor Cambodians are often compelled to sell their findings.

From the middlemen, the artefacts move 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.

The celebrated Angkor Wat temple complex, the country’s most treasured landmark, was removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger this month, with the body describing 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 drawcard today.

But the treasures across the rest of the country remain at risk.

Etienne Clement, the director of UNESCO in Cambodia, says the problem started emerging about five years ago, in part because of the successful crackdown on thefts of stone statuary from the kingdom’s famed temples.

"So the attention is now given to these kinds of objects, which are less spectacular and smaller but which unfortunately contain much more information than a stone statue which may have been studied for decades," he says.

And the trade is virtually impossible to monitor.

"By definition these objects are under the ground… discoveries are made by chance by people who then spend a lot of time digging out near a place where they have already found things," Clement says.

Dougald O’Reilly, director of independent group Heritage Watch which is working to protect the cultural riches buried in Cambodia, emphasises the global importance of the knowledge harboured here.

"In terms of world archaeology, Cambodia is an amazing gold mine, and it’s completely unknown. Angkor is one of the greatest civilisations 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 — some items never before seen in the region — have been completely wiped out by looters, O’Reilly says.

The ministry of culture’s secretary of state Chuch Phoern in Cambodia’s new government says the laws here are excellent, but police are untrained and locals remain unaware of what should be protected.

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

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

O’Reilly says the hope is that 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."