After waiting for what seemed like an age, the excavations have finally begun! I have been on site for just over a week now and already the team are making some fantastic discoveries. The whole KPX project is based around the production and exchange networks for ceramics and so it makes sense that the first excavation I have taken in part in, is at a pottery kiln site. Mr. Chhay Rachna (Archaeologist, APSARA Authority) directs this APSARA-sponsored research project; KPX is collaborating with Chhay Rachna’s project to obtain radiometric samples.
Bangkong kiln site is around 20km east of Siem Reap on the banks of the Roluos River. Survey work carried out over the last few years has confirmed the existence of 37 kilns at the site, most of which unfortunately have been severely damaged by farming and quarrying activity. As there are so many kilns in such a small area (~1500x500m) the site is rightly considered to be a major ceramics production centre and therefor is of great importance in understanding the kinds of technology used when making pottery in the Angkorian period.
Work at the site in previous years has involved using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to assess the state of perseveration below the surface of some of the more damaged kilns (Check out Sonnemann & Chhay 2014 in Journal of Indo-Pacific Archaeology for more details). Excavations at the site have so far been limited to a rescue dig in 2008 to recover some of the ceramics found around kilns BK 15 and BK 16 to the northern end of the site. From these limited excavations two key pieces of information were discovered. Firstly, it seems that the kilns here were primarily making high quality Khmer Stoneware pottery and secondly radiocarbon samples taken from the two kilns give dates ranging from the middle of the 8th century to the end of the 10th century. This makes them amongst the oldest kilns ever found in the Angkor area. For my research the site is ideal as it provides the chance to examine very early pottery technology in the region and also to look at its development through time. It is from these changes to technology, and how and why they occurred, that wider conclusions can be drawn about the nature of the Khmer economy. Before all that however, it is necessary to get your hands dirty, which I did with a smile on my face!
Kiln BK11, which we are excavating, is the best preserved at the site and appears as a large upstanding mound, a few meters above the otherwise flat field. The excavations are taking place under the guidance of Rachna Chhay, an archaeologist at the APSARA authority (who look after all aspects of heritage and archaeology in the area), a team of his colleagues and local labourers. The mound was covered in thick undergrowth and trees when we arrived so the first job was a bit of gardening and clearing the thickest vegetation from the areas we were interested in. Before work could commence in earnest though, it was necessary to make an offering to the spirits to ask their permission to dig and their blessings for our work. Short before lunch on day 2, the whole team gathered on the far side of the mound. Offerings of meat, rice, water and beer were made and laid out whilst we all knelt and held incense. The small ritual served as a stimulating and effective way to start the dig and certainly gave the work a sense of purpose; let’s hope the spirits are happy with what we do.
My main focus at the site is a trench (Trench 2) on top of the mound, which we are excavating in order to learn about the size and shape of the kiln, and also to provide samples for dating. Due to looting, the area at the top of the mound already had multiple large holes which we were able to adapt to suite our needs. For example, a large profile, exposed by the looting, contained multiple kiln floor surfaces so we knew where to look for more. After giving the exposed profile a good clean to see the detail in it properly, I opened a trench immediately below where the floors were visible and came down on another well preserved floor surface, which we cleared entirely. A fantastic result so far.
Excavations are ongoing to trace the extent of the floor surface and to try and locate other kiln features such as the fire box. My small team consists of women from the local area, which makes a refreshing change from the stereotypical ‘workman’ image.
Elsewhere on site, other trenches are being opened to look at how the mound was made and to recover examples of the kind of pottery made there. Trench 1 is being excavated at the base of the mound and has so far revealed hundreds of pieces of Stoneware. The pottery there seems to be a combination of glazed and unglazed ware which is of interest as it means they were possibly making some lower quality pot at the kiln. Trench 3 is located at the highest point of the kiln and is giving clues to how the mound was constructed, but is very hard going as it appears it was built with heavily compacted clayey soil.
We are planning on digging at the site for another 2 weeks so hopefully by then we’ll have many more hints as to how ceramics were made in the Angkorian period.