nthposition online magazine

Tomb raiders

by Tom Vater

[ places - may 03 ]

Nawi and one of her findsWhat do Nawi, a middle-aged Khmer woman living in a dusty village in north-west Cambodia, and Angelina Jolie, who lives in Beverly Hills, have in common? In their own ways they are both diminishing the cultural heritage of Cambodia. And they are both tomb raiders. But the reasons for the two women's respective actions could not be more different.

In November 2000, 'Tomb Raider', a Hollywood film based on a video game (or should I say, "The Hollywood film based on the video game"), was shot in and around Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Tomb raiding and plunder are nothing new to Angkor. The magnificent temples, built in the 9th-14th centuries, were the crowning achievement of an empire that stretched across large parts of south-east Asia. But after raids from Thailand and Vietnam, Angkor was abandoned to the jungle.

Angkor was "discovered' and restored by the French, who did a fair of tomb raiding themselves in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the mid 70s, Angkor was once more cut off from the world, this time due the military overspill from the Vietnam War and the subsequent communist revolution. Until 1998, when the civil war ended, Angkor remained very much off the beaten track, for travellers and tourists alike. The Khmer Rouge, who controlled the area into the 90s, stole and sold many Angkorian sculptures to finance the war. Most of these items left Cambodia via the near-by Thai border; the final recipients, though, were collectors in the West and in Japan.

A cease-fire was finally reached in 1998. Two years later, and Angelina Jolie, with the help of 150 crew, at a cost of US$10.000 a day to the Cambodian government, is jumping across crumbling walls, killing everything that moves. They are used to that in Cambodia. Having raided all tombs in the vicinity, Angelina shot off back to Beverly Hills and 'Tomb Raider' turned out to be one of those lame Sunday morning fantasy crap shows some of us grew up with.

Meanwhile the looters, or modern-day tomb raiders, despite the demise of the Khmer Rouge, are still active and have moved further afield. Temples deep in the jungle and closer to the Thai border are now being targeted. If no detailed surveys have been undertaken at these remote locations, Khmer artefacts become impossible to trace to their origin. This makes it hard to prove that they legitimately belong to Cambodia.

Siem Reap, the town closest to the temples is nostalgic about the short-lived economic boom the Hollywood tomb raiders caused. The monks all got bright orange robes because the traditional Khmer robes were not shiny enough for Hollywood. And another big film production starring an Asian superstar actor is in the planning stages. But this boom is slow to seep into those parts of the country (almost all) where tourists fear to tread. Life in the provinces is hard, there is little money to go around many villages, there are hardly any schools, and the infrastructure stands shakily on non-existent legs. Culture is a luxury in Cambodia. While every Khmer knows and honours Angkor as the symbol of the nation, over 80 per cent of Khmers have never been there. Many can't get to Angkor because the country still lacks decent roads.

Recently, though, not far from Angkor, a road was being resurfaced, and while digging, the local workers found a grave.

Cambodia is full of graves, 20,000 or so mass graves from the Pol Pot era alone, so no one was surprised to unearth human remains. But the villagers living by the side of the road soon realised that this was no grisly reminder of the recent past, but one from another time altogether. The grave held bodies adorned with strange head-dresses and breastplates, hundreds of glass and stone beads, semi-precious stones and many intact pieces of pottery.

When I arrive with my friend Rot at midday, everyone but the kids and infirm is out on the fields, cutting rice under an unbearable sun. Even the dogs feel too faint from the heat to greet us. The village of 30 or so grass-roofed huts on stilts has turned into a cratered battlefield. There is no electricity here, no TV, no shops. People live like they have for hundreds of years, an insecure existence, dependent on the seasons and political upheavals that befall this region so regularly. But it is not the war that has created all the ditches and craters around us; it is the Khmers' own work. After finding the first grave, a feverish search began for more entombed bodies. During the last rainy season (when the soil is soft and can be washed easily to search for small items, the villagers using the same techniques as gem stone miners), the trails between the houses, gardens and fields were dug up and yielded more graves, nine at the last count. The fact that their homes were now standing in a maze of holes bothered no one.

Rot asks a woman about the graves. Then he asks her all sorts of other stuff while we slowly melt in the sun and choke on the dust that our car has thrown up. The lady's name is Nawi. Does she know what happened to the stuff inside? Nawi smiles vaguely, looks at me and leads us to a near-by house. There's a big hole in the back garden. Under a cluster of banana trees she stops and points to the ground. About 20 clay pots, vases and kettle-shaped vessels lie strewn under the wide leaves. Some are chipped, but most are intact.

Village girl with plundered necklaceWe move back into the shade of the house. A few children, curious about the visitors, turn up. They are dressed in rags, they look unwashed and some look ill. But they are all smiling and are happy to hang around waiting for the strange visitors to do something strange. Each and everyone of the village kids wears jewellery - long necklaces of reddish stone beads, earrings with green, blue and red stones the size of a large pearl.

Nawi tells us the graves are very old. How old she doesn't know. But the farang know.

What farang, I ask her.

Following the find, word soon got out that something had been unearthed here that was worth investigating. Thai traders turned up and bought stones and necklaces. UNESCO know of the graves. The Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap ran a brief description of the site in a newsletter. It was determined that indeed, the graves were old. Very old. In fact, so old that almost nothing is known of the people buried here, a thousand years or more before the Angkor Empire dominated the region. The human remains and artefacts offer a rare window into Khmer prehistory more than 2,000 years ago. And there are no funds to prevent the site's rapid depletion.

Prehistoric human remains at the local pagodaNawi laughs. "And then one day, a farang came, an American. He paid everyone in the village one dollar a day to dig. We found another grave. The American photographed the bones and all the items in the grave. Then he packed up all the items in plastic bags, paid up and left. We took the bones to the local pagoda where we'd also left the first corpse we found." Nawi is neither put out by the low wages the foreigner paid nor by the fact that all the stuff is gone, never to be seen again.

Rot shrugs. "You know they have nothing here, no school for the children, no doctor for 20 kilometres. And no way to get there or pay for any medical service. The villagers can't afford to be precious about their past. It does not occur to them. They have to survive."

Nawi smiles. "We are lucky. When the rains come we will have another look." She assures me that the mysterious American was a man. Angelina did not come back to Cambodia to live out her fantasy for real. But in both instances, tombs were raided and the ultimate beneficiaries are not the Khmers.

Nawi sells Rot a necklace, which he has sent on to a university in Germany.

Rot and I drive to the pagoda down the road. In a small wooden shrine, a grey pile of bones stands in the blinding sunlight, protected by plastic sheeting. The best way to determine the age of the artefacts is by analysing the human remains at the site. We stare down at a broken skull. It wouldn't be such a big step to add a little bit of jawbone to the necklace for analysis, but in the end we chicken out. In my heart I know, if Angelina saw us now, sweating, dusty and caught in a moral dilemma, she wouldn't waste a glance on us.