After a couple of months of hard graft, in always hot and occasionally very wet weather, the excavations at Bangkong have drawn to a close with 4 kilns excavated; two joint-excavated by myself and other two by Rachna’s colleagues. As an introduction to kiln archaeology in Cambodia, this APSARA-sponsored field project has been fantastic and despite the sometimes grueling weather I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the excavations. The local folks I have had the opportunity to work with, APSARA archaeologists and workers, have been helpful, friendly and dedicated throughout and thanks must go to all of them. The final task before ending our time on the site was to take multiple OSL samples from a variety of contexts with the hope of finding out when the kilns were constructed, how long they were in use for and when they were ultimately abandoned.
One of the most noteworthy discoveries we have made so far is the large amount of variety in how the kilns were constructed, modified and repaired. Every kiln follows a similar pattern but the shape and size varies considerably. At face value, this may seem inconsequential, so what if different kilns were built in variety of ways? The variability found though, provides two potential insights into the life of the Khmer people between the 9th and 15th centuries. If our comprehensive dating program shows that the changes in kiln construction occur at different points in time it would enable the possibility to discuss technological innovation and development. This in turn could suggest that ceramic production technology did not arrive in the Khmer Empire as a fully formed package and required experimentation and novel approaches. Or in other words, the people of the time undertook a process of trial-and-error until they got it right. If, on the other hand, we find that the kilns are roughly all contemporaneous, then questions about the degree of social hierarchy and centralised control may be addressed. The magnificent temples of Angkor and other sites of the period are in part so remarkable, because they are so ordered and structured. A central authority designed, planned and enacted the constructions to strict geometric patterns. Other work, such as that undertaken by Dr Alison Carter’s team on house structures of the period, suggests that this same ordered method of construction permeates home life too. Why then should kilns and industrial ceramic production be any different? Perhaps we are dealing with a group of people outside of regular society, in possession of a degree of autonomy, beyond that afforded to those closer to the great temples and palaces. Whichever answer turns out to be correct we will still hopefully be able to draw wider conclusions about the society and people who lived around the area and worked at the site, from the artisans who crafted the beautiful ceramics, the engineers who designed and constructed the kilns, the workers who fuelled the operation and the farmers who kept everyone’s bellies full.
All of the four kilns we have worked on at Bangkong have presented their own challenges. At Kiln 11, the degree of looting that had occurred at some point in the past caused many scratched heads and hours spent staring at the dirt, trying to make sense of it all. At Kiln 14, it was the constantly surprising level of preservation, and the unenviable decisions between excavation and preservation. At Kiln 26, excavated by Rachna, the major problem was a lack of preservation, and the struggle to interpret what little remained, a struggle he excels in. Finally at Kiln 18, excavated by Komnet, the biggest struggle has been time, for as ever, there is never enough time to study the past.
Away from the hot days in muddy holes, the other members of the KPX team have been in town recently, to check on the overall progress of the project and to discuss with various people the ways we can move the research forward. It has been great to finally get to meet, in person Prof Lisa Kealhofer (http://www.scu.edu/ca s/ess/faculty-staff/lisa-kealhofer/) and Dr Miriam Stark (http://www.anthropology.hawaii.edu/people/faculty/Stark/) both of whom, I have been emailing for many months but until now haven’t had the chance to meet in person. Also present was Prof Ben Marsh (http://www.bucknell.edu/college-of-arts-and-sciences/academic-departments/geography/faculty-and-staff/ben-marsh.html) a geomorphologist, who has joined the project to help make sense of the wider landscape around the kiln complexes, and provide insights into the past environment. With Peter also coming over from Australia, and a Dr Ea Darith, our partner investigator from the APSARA authority, the whole team was together.
During their trip, we visited the Tani kiln site (http://www.autoriteapsara.org/en/apsara/monuments/archaeology/kiln/conservation_project.htm), around 20km north east of the central Angkor region. Some of the kilns in the complex, which date from the late 9th century to the mid-12th century, were excavated as part of a collaboration between the APSARA Authority, the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara, Japan and Sophia University Angkor International Mission, Japan between 1996 and 2002. Since the end of excavations an excellent site museum has been constructed close to the kilns. The museum houses some of the finer ceramics from the site, along with information about ceramic production and kiln construction, and is well worth a visit. Whilst the museum may not rank highly on many tourists ‘to-do lists’ it is an important and beneficial resource for local people, to learn more about their own culture and the significance of protecting their heritage.
With Bangkong finished for now, we have moved on to the Khnar Po kiln complex, a further 20km to the east. The kilns here were discovered when a new road through the village chopped a number of them in half. Working in an active village is a very different experience to being in an empty field. We have created quite a buzz in the community and my local colleagues have been doing an excellent job explaining what we are doing to the villagers, but more on that next time.