Under the guidance of Dr. Miriam Stark, Heng Piphal will study settlement patterns and materials associated with the pre-Angkorian site of Thala Borivat in Stoeng Treng province, Cambodia. Thala Borivat is located along the Mekong River, and served as a regional center in the lower Mekong Basin between the 6th and 9th centuries CE. The site is of particular importance because its distinctive lintel style (found on brick temples from the site) is echoed across the lower Mekong and may reflect a period of political dominance by a polity centered on the Thala Borivat region. This research is unique because little archaeological research in the region has been done previously, and because the epigraphic record suggests the region's importance in controlling trade routes between the Mekong basin and what is now Laos. Mr. Heng's research combines spatial analysis techniques with systematic excavations to determine the timing, scale and nature of this poorly-documented region.

Scholars now agree that early polities arose in several parts of the lower Mekong basin during the first millennium CE, and laid the groundwork for the Angkorian Empire that dominated the region a few centuries later. However, few field-based archaeological projects have documented developments associated with this pre-Angkorian period. The case of Thala Borivat is particularly salient because of its association with both a distinctive and widespread art style, and epigraphic suggestions of a power base in the region. Knowledge of settlement configuration and associated archaeological assemblages is essential to placing this pre-Angkorian center into the Mekong basin chronology. Work through this project will also produce archaeological data for macroregional comparisons across the basin that are critical for evaluating how interregional interaction shaped the subsequent emergence of mainland Southeast Asia's largest state. Combining spatial, archaeological, epigraphic, and art historical data to study the Thala Borivat site in its local and regional contexts expands the knowledge base of early Southeast Asian state formation and offers a valuable case for comparative study.

This research will have a broader impact beyond the production of archaeological knowledge. Both data recovery and data analysis phases of the project weave together research with training undergraduates from the Archaeology Faculty at the Royal University of Fine Arts (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). Results from the project will be shared through public outreach programs with local communities in Stoeng Treng province, and with the academic community through peer-reviewed English-language publications and Khmer publications. These efforts will seek to improve public understanding of science, archaeology, and anthropology. Primary data will be available through the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (Cambodia), and will form the basis of undergraduate theses for archaeology students in Cambodia. By incorporating training into the research program, mentoring undergraduate students, and collaborating closely with Cambodian institutions, this research will revise archaeological and popular understandings of the Cambodian past, and open avenues for future inquiry.

Project Report

This dissertation research involved archaeological site reconnaissance and mapping, surface artifact collection, and excavation at a pre-Angkorian site of Thala Borivat in Stoeng Treng Province, Cambodia. The site is located along the Mekong River, and served as a regional center in the lower Mekong Basin between the 6th and 9th centuries CE (Figure 1). Thala Borivat is one of the key pre-Angkorian centers to understand the evolution into the 9th – 15th century Angkor Empire. This research was designed to 1) understand spatial patterning of the habitation area and religious centers; 2) determine the timing, scale and nature of this region. During the course of fieldwork, the topographic mapping and site reconnaissance survey uncovered more than 50 new archaeological sites. These include habitation mounds, burial mounds, and brick architectural features. Five new pre-Angkorian inscriptions were also uncovered. Three of them are written in Sanskrit, the Hindu religious text of this period; two others are written in Khmer. This area has experienced extensive looting of burial goods (especially gold jewelry and beads); bricks and sandstone objects are being used as net sinkers and sharpening stones (Figure 2). This field research helped generate interest in archaeological site preservation and heritage education within the local community. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the provincial municipality are using spatial data from this project in their current proposal for an archaeological conservation zone around the Thala Borivat site. Though analyses are ongoing, initial findings provide valuable comparative datasets for Southeast Asian and global research on early states. Data from this research indicate that the Thala Borivat site is irregular in shape and contains a series of rectangular mounds and ponds stretched along the banks of the Mekong and the San Rivers. Surface ceramics, exposed by road construction projects and farming, provide evidence that this area has been occupied since 500 BCE. Ceramics, brick structures, and burials suggest that Thala Borivat was a multi-functional and multi-component center. Its ritual and habitation districts are interspersed, and contain brick foundations and ceramic debris. Burial grounds appear, in most cases, between 0.5km to 2km from habitations on the riverbanks. In Spring 2014, ten excavation units were placed across this site (Figure 3). Nine excavation units are located in proximity to the temple structures and within the habitation area; the tenth unit, placed within a burial mound, was a rescue excavation to retrieve a burial that is being eroded by a trail and rain water. Data from two excavation units uncovered an early cemetery (between 500­ BCE–500 CE) on the riverbank prior to the modification of the site into both habitation and religious areas. Several stone beads were uncovered from these two units. Interestingly, most excavated units contain iron slag and industrial ceramics, possibly associated with metallurgical activity. Whether these workshops were associated with the temples or with habitations is subject to future research. From Unit 8, a burial of a juvenile individual was uncovered along with multiple fragments of pots (possibly from 4 to 5 pots) and 2 stone beads. Due to poor preservation, only the thigh and hipbones are preserved. It is thus difficult to determine the age and sex of this individual. Though, the ceramic types found here are closely related with those found in other excavation units as well as from the surface collection. This burial could be relatively dated between 200-500 CE. (Figure 4 & 5) Excavation of units close to the temple exposed brick architecture (floor and foundations) (Figure 6). Diagnostic ceramics found around the temple mound edges suggest that the temples were in use during the pre-Angkor period (500-800 CE). By the Angkor period, particularly by 1100-1200 CE, both Chinese ceramics (Song white porcelain) and Angkorian ceramics were found commingled in brick rubble atop the pre-Angkorian temples. This suggests that some of these pre-Angkorian brick temples had already collapsed by the Angkor period. These temple mounds may have been repurposed by the Angkorian people to become habitation sites. Very few post-Angkorian ceramics (post CE 1500) were found in this area, which might suggest the decline of this area’s importance during a period of warfare between Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to claim this area. This project has provided training opportunities for three archaeology students from the Royal University of Fine Arts (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) and one German undergraduate in archaeological field methods. Seven Khmer archaeologists working in other areas of Cambodia, such as Angkor and Preah Vihear world heritage sites, also assisted with the field research. This project offered an opportunity for them to pursue archaeological research outside of their specialties, and to expand their research horizons.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Hawaii
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