UO archaeologist plans return to explore Cambodian temple

At its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, the ancient city of Angkor in present-day Cambodia was one of the most populous in the world, but exactly how much influence it had over the surrounding communities is subject to debate among archaeologists.

University of Oregon archaeology professor Alison Carter will travel to Cambodia this summer to continue her field work at Prasat Basaet temple in the country’s Battambang province to try to answer that question, as well as work with locals on the importance of cultural preservation and the value of archaeology.

Carter will travel to Cambodia in June as part of a $318,000 National Science Foundation grant project. The project, “Power, Prasat and Periphery: Becoming Provincial Angkor,” is a partnership between the University of Oregon, the University of Hawaii and the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

Carter will work with University of Hawaii professor Miriam Stark as co-principal investigator. Through the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the Cambodian government sends representatives and archaeologists to collaborate with Stark and Carter on the digs and facilitate connections with the local population.

Angkor, which at one point had nearly 1 million inhabitants living among its towering Hindu and Buddhist temples, was the seat of a powerful empire. The capital city traded and shared customs with the outer villages, but much is still unknown. Did the villagers pay taxes? Were their lives much different from those in the capital? Did they rebel?

Carter first traveled to Cambodia as a graduate student in 2005, where she met Stark. She’s traveled to the site periodically since, building on work from previous years and strengthening relationships with the local villagers and Cambodian researchers.

“We were really curious about what life was like in the village and how it compared to the capital,” she said. “How did the provinces interact with the capital? We can learn about that process by digging where people were living, essentially looking for their garbage.”

Prasat Basaet — “Prasat” means “temple” in Khmer, the local language — sits near a small village in Northwestern Cambodia. The temple itself, a cluster of delicate sandstone towers concentrated around a few small buildings against a backdrop of lush greenery, has been reassembled by the Cambodian government after decades of natural deterioration. While not as famous as the nearby Angkor Wat, the site has become a regional tourist attraction, Carter said.

But Carter’s work happens behind the temple, near the village’s residential houses. They dig a few feet into the ground, uncovering animal bones, bits of pottery and organic matter that provide clues as to how previous inhabitants lived. Local villagers are an integral part of the process, Carter said, as part of the project’s focus is spreading awareness about the importance of archaeology.

“The concept of archaeology, what archaeologists do and the science behind it, is not well known or understood,” she said. “Even in the U.S.”

Including locals in the digs can help limit some of the misunderstandings that often arise when Western archaeologists work in Southeast Asian countries. It’s not uncommon for people to assume archaeologists are trying to make money off the artifacts they uncover, seeking to exploit a region’s cultural heritage, Carter said, especially given the prevalence of looting.

To avoid that, the team plans to educate the public about their work well in advance. They also host community archaeology days, during which local high school students are invited to come tour the site.

As part of the educational portion of the project, the researchers are using some of the funding to hire a local comic book artist to visit the site and write a graphic novel about the region’s archaeology, which they’ll distribute to local students. The artist, Lida Y, has a background in archaeology-themed comic books and is expected to finish by summer 2023.

“We’re not just looking for treasures or something to just throw in a museum,” Carter said. “We want to understand how people lived, and this understanding of archaeology is not very widespread.”

By Cole Sinanian, College of Arts and Sciences