Skip to main content


Excavating the Delta

By Miriam Stark | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

At twenty-seven hundred miles, the Mekong River is one of the world’s longest rivers. It flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and its delta is one of world’s great rice-growing regions. Along the western edge lies Angkor Borei, a town that archaeologists hope may hold a key to Cambodia’s ancient history. An international team of archaeologists at work there has found ancient pots and glass beads, and recently, an ancient cemetery containing forty-five human skeletons that may date as far back as 200 B.C.

Many Cambodians consider Angkor Borei the cradle of their civilization. In one Cambodian creation story, an Indian Brahmin priest named Preah Thaong left India for Southeast Asia and arrived at the Mekong Delta. There he encountered the beautiful princess Soma cavorting at the shore. She was the daughter of the king of the nagas, or serpents living beneath the ocean. The princess and the priest fought for control of the region; he defeated her, and they fell in love and married.

It is said that King Preah Thaong introduced Hindu customs, legal traditions, and the Sanskrit language to the population. It is also said that he “drank the waters” that covered the land -- which may have signified draining parts of the delta for farming -- and gave the people a kingdom that he called Kambuja. The Mekong Delta is flat, low-lying, and prone to flooding; geographers believe that during ancient times it was easily farmed through rice agriculture.

The descendants of King Preah Thaong’s subjects, the Kambuja-desa, are the modern-day Khmers. No indigenous inscriptions link Angkor Borei directly with the founding of Cambodia, yet place names around the settlement suggest a connection between the Preah Thaong story and this ancient settlement: a reservoir just southeast of the Angkor Borei is named Preah Thaong.

The Lower Mekong Archaeological Project (LOMAP), an international collaboration supported by NEH, is examining the early historic period of southern Cambodia. The project is co-directed by Miriam Stark, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai'i, and Chuch Phoeurn, Undersecretary of State for Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

Pheourn is one of four Cambodian archaeologists who survived Pol Pot’s totalitarian regime of the 1970s, which caused the deaths of at least one million people. One of the many tragedies of the Khmer Rouge era was the systematic eradication of its intellectual community and the disappearance of most of Cambodia’s archaeologists. Cambodia’s temples are its leading tourist attraction, and today the country lacks the specialists to manage them. One of the expedition’s goals is to blend research with technical and academic training, so that the next generation of specialists will be able to preserve the country’s archaeological heritage.

Historians and archaeologists have recognized Angkor Borei as an important historical site for several reasons. The earliest written Khmer was found at Angkor Borei, in an inscription dated 611 A.D., indicating that this ancient settlement may have dominated the Mekong Delta region politically and economically during part of the first millennium. Angkor Borei also contains information about the settlement of the Mekong Delta, and offers a model for studying the rise of a civilization.

The French, who controlled Cambodia from 1863 until 1970, explored the Mekong Delta as early as the mid-nineteenth century. In 1911, French archaeologists were drawn to a small hill immediately south of Angkor Borei where two temples, Phnom Da and Asram Maharosei, are located. There, archaeologists found abundant statuary including statues of Vishnu and representations of Siva, suggesting early Indic influence. The archaeological site of Angkor Borei has also produced brick architecture, statuary, and assorted precious metals and gems.

There is documentary evidence concerning the earliest polities of the Mekong Delta, particularly in Chinese accounts and oral histories. Two envoys, Kang Dai and Zhu Ying, visited the delta in the third century A.D. to explore a possible sea passage through Southeast Asia to India. One of the questions Stark and Phoeurn aim to answer is whether or not Angkor Borei actually served as the ancient capital of the polity called “Funan” by the Chinese emissaries.

In their writings, these dignitaries reported on the customs of the peoples who lived in the “Kingdom of Funan.” Funan contained urban centers and many trappings associated with ancient states: population centers, political hierarchy, institutionalized religion, a writing system, and possible economic specialization.

According to historical accounts, sailors traveled with the monsoon winds, which blew in one direction half the year, and the other direction the other half. Traders spent an extended period of time in Funan’s ports, waiting for the winds to change with the monsoons. Funan supplied its port centers with agricultural goods, especially rice, for the traders’ consumption. Funan’s economy was tribute-based, which meant that everyone in the kingdom paid the equivalent of taxes. Each person living in the delta gave the kingdom either their labor or their goods -- food, raw materials for construction, or forest goods popular for international trade, such as birds’ nests and fragrant woods.

The LOMAP expedition is using reconnaissance and mapping to identify the range of ancient features distributed across the site, such as collapsed brick structures, reservoirs and moats, and areas of dense ancient trash deposits. It is now known that Angkor Borei was a walled and moated settlement which, at its peak, enclosed an area of at least three hundred hectares and contained more than a dozen brick monuments. It was first founded in the fifth or fourth century B.C., and apparently grew as a community through time.

The project’s second type of basic research involves excavations to test the subsurface deposits at various locations. Work in 1999 and 2000 uncovered portions of an ancient cemetery that probably dates between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. Several detailed technical studies now under way will examine how humans modified the landscape by cutting canals, excavating reservoirs, and denuding areas to turn into farmland. The project will also look into such areas as the health and status of the people who lived there.

Several of the project’s key findings may encourage scholars to revise their view of Cambodia’s Mekong Delta during the early historic period. Radiocarbon dating shows that the settlement of Angkor Borei was first occupied by the late fifth or early fourth century B.C., which precedes Chinese descriptions of “Funan” by five hundred years. It appears that the Funan polity the Chinese describe had a much longer history than scholars have previously imagined, with roots in the late Iron Age of Southeast Asia. If this is the case, then states and kingdoms in the Mekong Delta emerged gradually over a five-hundred-year period. Documentation and testing of sites such as Angkor Borei permit researchers to study this development.

The cemetery, Vat Komnou, is the first burial site that has been excavated in Cambodia using modern archaeological techniques. Portions of at least forty-five human burials are now undergoing analysis. The skeletons date back to between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. The closely packed nature of the burials, combined with the fact that they are interred rather than cremated, allows archaeologists to study the health and diet of these ancient Cambodians. The skeletons contain all sorts of clues about the way Cambodians lived at the time: worn teeth, for example, suggest a diet that included silicates from the grinding stones used to prepare grains. If the teeth contain a large number of cavities, that person’s diet was most likely made up of a large amount of starch or carbohydrates -- which is associated with agriculture. Lines or pits encircling teeth may indicate starvation and infectious disease.

Most human skeletons were interred with earthenware vessels, beads, pig skulls, and other offerings, which provide data for studying the social organization of the time.

Fieldwork merely sketches an outline for the pictures that archaeologists seek to draw. Scholars continue to debate whether early states in the region emerged in response to ideological influence, maritime trade, or other developments that coincided with Indian contact. Post-fieldwork analysis is necessary to make sense of the material excavated, and the next decade holds great promise for learning about more about Angkor Borei.