Looting of relics is grave news for future generations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am

When they unearthed old skeletons buried under their homes, the villagers of Sophy thought their wildest dreams of buried treasure had at last come true.

For three days until the authorities stopped them, peasant farmers abandoned their rice fields and dug frantically, unearthing piles of bones and pots and a few glass beads but, to their disappointment, no gold.

Other villages in the Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey have had better luck. The graves there that are worth the really big money are the last resting places of chiefs from a culture that flourished more than 1,000 years ago, the progenitors of the kings who built the extraordinary temple complex at nearby Angkor Wat.

But the graves of their subjects often have a few glass beads in them - enough to sell to traders in the nearest town for a few US dollars and make the digging worthwhile.

In the past six years there has been an epidemic of looting by peasants in Cambodia, so much that archaeologists fear knowledge of a key period in Asia's history is being lost forever.

It's not just that the historically important treasures such as swords and necklaces are sold, usually to tourists in Phnom Penh or Bangkok, and then sometimes abroad. The grave robbers also cause great damage. Bones are discarded or burned, ancient pots smashed or used for storage, and information about where the grave was sited is lost. Expanses of rice fields and banana groves have been turned into pitted moonscapes by entire villages turning to treasure hunting; the more enterprising looters have even bought metal detectors to search for new graves.

Glass beads are in demand in Bangkok where they are prized as talismans with the power of the dead chiefs they were buried with. They are often reworked and sold as amulets, and there is a thriving market for them on eBay among European and American collectors.

The epidemic of grave looting in northwestern Cambodia follows years of stealing from temples by organised gangs who hack Buddha heads and friezes from jungle sites for sale on the international market. The looting took off with the coming of peace to Cambodia at the end of the 1990s, when it became safe enough for gangs and traders to venture into areas rich with historical remains which had been bases for Khmer Rouge guerillas.

In July a smuggled Angkorian apsara head fragment was returned to Cambodia by the US embassy after it was seized in the US, but that was rare. Hardly any of Cambodia's stolen treasures are recovered.

The great temple complex at Angkor Wat itself is now protected by guards, and as Cambodia gradually extends protection to other important sites robbery becomes more difficult. But with hundreds of temples scattered throughout remote jungles it is impossible to protect them all.

Some sites, such as the temples at Preah Banteay, have even been reduced to rubble.

Canadian archaeologist Dougald O'Reilly established Heritage Watch in 2003 to persuade Cambodians to preserve their past instead of looting it. Compared to the looting free-for-all of 10 years ago, when temples were plundered by organised gangs, things have improved. But unlike temples, graves are not important to Cambodia's burgeoning tourist industry, so they don't have the same priority although they also hold vital clues to the country's history.

'When these burial sites are dug up so much information is lost about the civilisation which came before Angkor Wat. We hardly know anything about those people and there isn't even a name for their culture, yet they went on to create one of the most magnificent civilisations in human history,' said Dr O'Reilly, who has lived in Cambodia since 2000 when he came to work as a Unesco lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

'At this rate graves are being destroyed so fast there won't be any way to understand the rise of Angkor. A key episode of history will have been lost forever.'

Heritage Watch has had much success in spreading its message. Cambodians are extremely proud of their past so it hasn't been difficult to persuade them to preserve it.

The group has tried to involve local people in the tourist industry so they protect temples instead of looting them. It enjoyed spectacular success with a comic book titled Wrath of the Phantom Army about the ghosts of slain warriors protecting their temples and tombs - frightening off looters in the superstitious nation.

Tourists are a big part of the problem. A Heritage Watch study found that 20 per cent of the visitors to Angkor Wat bought antiquities. Most didn't realise the significance of what they were doing - thousands of treasures were leaving the country annually. In Phnom Penh a souvenir can be bought for a few US dollars at the Russian market.

Many antiquities are sold through Singapore and Thailand. Neither country has signed the 1970 Unesco convention on selling stolen antiquities, making it impossible to regulate art dealers there. Corruption is a key part of the problem. Police and authorities can be bribed, and uneducated farmers, who on average earn about US$300 annually, are paid a pittance for stolen Buddha heads and other treasures that are worth a fortune abroad.

Sophy's farmers certainly didn't make much money from their grave-robbing - about US$15 was the highest price paid for some beads. Unlike many villages Sophy's farmers at least treated the bones and skulls they dug up with reverence, promising to place them in the village temple at the next suitable festival of remembrance for the dead. Monks will chant and pray for their souls.

Sum Mei Sum, 71, was one of those who gathered the bones, which he believes are those of his ancestors, after they were found when a new cesspit was being dug next to his house. He decided not to sell three glass beads when dealers arrived in the village. Instead, he placed them in an empty jar along with a rodent jaw and the claw of a bird which he keeps as medicine in case of snake-bite.

'Some of the villagers were extremely angry when the government people ordered us to stop, although they didn't make much from selling the beads,' the farmer said. 'It's a feeling of excitement that takes over you at the thought of treasure. You want to keep digging.'