Funding from the National Science Foundation will support Dr. Miriam Stark and her colleagues in their research on early state development in the Mekong delta (southern Cambodia). The project brings together Western and Cambodian specialists in archaeology, geoarchaeology, geography, and palynology to study how complex societies emerged, and their political and economic foundations in the first millennium A.D. During this transition to history, Southeast Asia's earliest states emerged in tandem with the appearance of Indic ideologies and the development of an international maritime trade network. Despite strong interest in comparative research on early state formation globally, few archaeologists have studied early complex societies in mainland Southeast Asia. Scholars of Cambodia's Angkorian civilization (c. A.D. 802-A.D. 1432) have long suggested that the origins of the Khmer empire lay in the Mekong delta. No systematic archaeological research has been undertaken previously, however, to document its origins and emergence.
This project explores the changing organizational structure of complex polities in the Mekong delta between c. 500 B.C. and c. A.D. 500. Project members evaluate competing models of state formation, which differ both in causality and in structure. Assessing these models requires an understanding of changing settlement configuration through time, of ancient agricultural strategies, and of the potentially changing nature of water management systems. Dynamic relationships between geographical factors (variation in soils, availability of fresh water, and potential transportation routes) are investigated, as are the roles that ideology, politics and economics played in shaping the human and natural landscape of the first millennium A.D.
The project's field methodology combines three seasons of archaeological and geoarchaeological research with concomitant analyses of remote sensing data. Project members will collect archaeological, art historical, geographical, paleoenvironmental, and epigraphic data to understand changes in settlement that were associated with the emergence of one of the region's earliest states. Construction of a geographic (GIS) database provides the foundation for field research. The GIS database also provides a tool for interpreting changing settlement patterns through time, and for studying evidence for changing farming strategies that may have included flood recession and irrigation-based rice agriculture. Field seasons combine four activities: (1) archaeological survey to document large sites and their environs; (2) thermoluminescence dating on collapsed brick monuments on these large sites to build a regional chronological sequence; (3) geoarchaeological research to identify and date ancient canal segments; and (4) paleoenvironmental research (primarily sediment coring) to reconstruct the region's changing climatic and vegetational regimes during the last 2500 years.
This research is important in several respects. First, it provides new data for understanding the emergence of complex societies in an important and understudied region of the world. Second, the project merges interdisciplinary approaches to study political, environmental, and economic aspects of ancient state formation. Finally, the project combines research with training for Cambodian archaeology students. Nearly 25 years of civil war decimated the Cambodian archaeological community, and damaged its cultural resources. This project makes significant contributions to Cambodia's archaeological heritage, and also to training the next generation of Cambodian archaeologists.