Memotian: Searching for Prehistoric Settlement Along Cambodia & Vietnam Border

Heng Sophady, deputy director-general for cultural heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, speaks with ThmeyThmey News.

PHNOM PENH – During the 20th century, during and after the French colonial rule in Cambodia, many archaeological discoveries revived the once-forgotten history of this nation. Ancient temples, roads, bridges, canals, reservoirs were found and documented.

However, Cambodia also had a significant presence of prehistoric settlements. Located in the red-soil region, mainly in Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces, as well as the south of Vietnam, circular earthworks have been found scattering across the rubber farmlands. Dubbed the Memotian culture, archaeological findings from this place have captured the attention of experts for decades.

Heng Sophady, deputy director-general for cultural heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, spoke of this discovery and how important it is to the study of archaeology in the region.

Po Sokun: How did these circular earthworks, locally called phum mool, catch the attention of people?

Heng Sophady: Phum Mool (roughly translated from Khmer as “spherical village”) is a name given by researchers. This name derives from the word “circular earthwork”. We call it a village since there used to be people living here. “Kou” or “Banteay Kou” is another name used by the locals. During that time, no one really knew what the structure would be or what kind of objects were there. During the French colonial era, the red soil region was desirable for agriculture and that was why the French brought rubber plantation from Latin America here.​​ The colonists planted these trees around the district of Memot and Ponhea Krek of Kampong Cham province during the 1920s. As they were clearing the forest for plantation, they stumbled across these circular looking areas before notifying this primary information for publication. In 1957, French archaeologist Louis Malleret listed the circular earthworks that exist in Cambodia and Vietnam where he found five and 12 locations respectively in both countries. He also described the physical nature of the locations as having a surrounding wall made of earth and a dug-out canal from the inside. He estimated that these were created around the neolithic era based on the pieces of pottery and stone tools discovered by farmers and through aerial imagery. He published this findings on the EFEO (French School of the Far East) bulletin in 1959. In 1962, another famous French archaeologist, Bernard Philippe Groslier, conducted an archaeological excavation on a circular earthwork in Memot. He also dated this place back to the neolithic era from the evidence he found. He named this prehistoric culture Memotien. For him, this was special since this kind of settlement can only be found in and around the district of Ponhea Krek, Memot and the red-soil region south of Vietnam. Realistically, they are not perfectly circular. They are more of an oval shape. The diameter can be between 200 and 300 metres. This research was cut-off due to the war in the 1970s until 1996. After the war, universities from the US, Japan and Germany partnered with the Royal University of Fine Arts to continue working on this project and found more locations. Now, 38 of these are registered. On the Vietnamese side, they have found 19 locations on top of what they have founded earlier. However, this is still older data. We have not received any new updates yet. For the locals, the earthwork are not new. When we did the research, the locals thought that these places could be fortified army bases during the Vietnam war. Some of the American bases in the region also resembled this earthwork. We were somehow a bit hazy as well. Sometimes, American planes also bombed these areas after mistaking them for bases.

Photo provided

Po Sokun: How are these archaeological areas managed when they already exist inside farmlands?

Heng Sophady: These places lie deep inside the rubber plantation and have  nothing to attract tourists. Our work is to research, document and plan ahead. It could be an important heritage as it is unique only to this location. We cannot forbid them from farming in these places since it is their agricultural space. However, we try to spread awareness to the locals, mark the areas and encourage them not to excavate the wall-like elevation of the earthwork.

Po Sokun: What is the evidence you have found?

Heng Sophady: The main feature of the earthwork is the surrounding wall. Plus, most have two entrances leading in and out the phum mool. On the inner lining of the wall, there is a dug-out canal. However, its purpose might not be about holding water. Why? First, these places lie on a slope. Second, speaking of elevation, there is no natural water source which exists that high. Some predictions suggest that the canal was dug out as a barrier to fight off wild animals. Perhaps, it was also reinforced by wooden walls. This is our best guess so far. Furthermore, we also found pieces of pottery and stone tools.

Photo provided

Po Sokun: What is the future plan for this archaeological work?

Heng Sophady: Our project is halted due to the lack of funds and we shifted our attention to the ageing temples as many of them are facing deterioration. The circular earthwork will, more or less, remain the same. We just need the locals not to excavate the earth wall and the canal. There have been times in when the earthwork was excavated to build a new village. Before, thick forests made it hard for us to find these earthworks. However, for now, deforestation and development may reduce the forest surface and subsequently make it easier to discover these places. We also want to have more cooperation with Vietnam as they also have plenty of these sites. More archaeological excavation of other earthwork is needed. With our recent excavation, we have created the Memot Centre of Archaeology inside the premises of the Memot district office in 2000. This is also a place where we stored our findings from the earthworks and allow students as well as the public to learn more about this prehistoric culture.

Crew members erecting a sign to mark the circular earthwork location. Photo provided.

Memot Centre of Archaeology. Photo provided.

This interview was first published in ThmeyThmey News on October 8, 2020.

This article was translated by Ky Chamna for Cambodianess News.

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