The Mystery the Jars: A Recent Expedition to a Remote Cave in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains Has Helped to Shed New Light on the Origins of a Series of Extraordinary Burial Sites

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For Dr Nancy Beavan, the arrival of a courier bearing a bag of bones is a regular occurrence. Over the years, the US-born specialist in radiocarbon dating, currently based at New Zealand's University of Otago, has received thousands of them, both human and animal. But this particular human rib bone, sent from a remote region in southwestern Cambodia, was the beginning of a fascination that continues to captivate her.

The bone came from a remote expanse of forest in the Cardamom Mountains. This forest, the second largest and least exploited in Southeast Asia, extends over 20,000 square kilometres from the border with Thailand to the west and to the Mekong valley in the east.

For centuries, the Cardamoms offered refuge to people on the run from the law or those who simply didn't want to be a part of the communities that occupied the country's lowlands. Most recently, it was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, which was forced to retreat there in 1979 by the liberating Vietnamese Army.

REGIONAL PRACTICE

The bone that so intrigued Beavan was found in an ancient burial site known as Khnorng Sroal, one of ten such sites that have been discovered so far where human remains have been interred either in large earthen jars or in coffins carved from a single log. The jars and coffins are invariably found in particularly inaccessible places--typically high up on narrow cliff ledges.

The practice of placing the dead in jars has been observed in other countries in the region--Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, for example--but in Cambodia, it's evidence has been confined to these Cardamom Mountains sites.

The origins of the sites are a mystery. No written record of the practice exists. The first reports of the burial sites appeared in the Western literature during the 1970s. Marie Martin, an ethnographer of Cardamom tribal groups, was told stories of 'bones in caves' that the local people believed were those of 'people of the court' who fled the old Khmer capital of Longvek after a Thai invasion in 1592-93.

In her reports, Martin cited comments by researchers Roland Mourer and Jean Ellul, who also worked in the region during the 1960s and '70s and were told similar stories. However, all of these researchers discarded the idea that these were the remains of high-status people because of the simplicity of the possessions buried alongside the bodies--typically a few metal rings and coloured beads.

Although extensive archaeological and anthropological data exist on the Khmer culture, particularly the people who were responsible for building Cambodia's iconic Angkor temple complexes, little research has been carried out on the cultures of other ethnic minorities or marginalised social groups from around this time.

CONSERVATION ARCHAEOLOGY

In January, Beavan and a team of scientists were helicoptered in to Phnom Khnorng Perng, the largest of any of the known sites, with the assistance of Suwanna Gauntlet, founder and CEO of the US conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance, which has run projects in the Cardamoms since 2002.

On arrival, the team set to work, but only after offerings of incense had been made to appease the forest spirits. Once the site had been measured and split into sections, the jars were brought out one by one from the small cave in which they had been placed, a task that involved both balance and agility. Located several hundred feet up a sheer cliff, the cave was about five metres deep, less than two metres high and could only be reached via a tiny path that meandered along the cliff's edge.

Each jar was emptied and the contents bagged and handed over to Beavan's colleague, biological anthropologist Dr Sian Halcrow. 'Looking at human remains directly can tell you a lot of things about the way that person lived--the age at death, whether they are male or female, if they had any disease, and so on. …