The Basaet Temple Project: Looking for the Cambodians of Thousands of Years Ago

Archeologist Alison Carter discusses with Cambodian colleagues at an excavation trench during the 2018 field season. Photo provided

PHNOM PENH — For decades, archaeologists Miriam Stark and Alison Carter have attempted to find out how people, and especially the regular people, lived before, during and after the Angkorian empire. In recent years, their research has taken place in Battambang province, and more specifically at Prasat Basaet, or Basaet temple, hoping to learn about the people whose lives and work became linked to a temple outside the kingdom’s capital.  

Because while official information on Cambodia’s kings has been found on stone inscriptions, little is known about the Cambodians of the time, Stark and Carter explained during an interview in early 2023. Administrative and other records may have been kept on palm leaves or other perishable writing material but, if this was the case, they have not survived the tropical climate and passage of time.

Still, some stone inscriptions and especially one of them have helped researchers grasp what a temple entailed for an area.   

“Archeologists have been very interested by an inscription that George Cedes translated more than 100 years ago, and one that is from the site of Ta Prohm [located in the Angkor Archeological Park in Siem Reap province],” Miriam Stark said. “It describes not only all kinds of donations of goods and food that were made to the temple—that was a late 12th century early 13th century temple, one of King Jayavarman VII’s important temples, this one dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and also his mother.

“[T]he Ta Prohm inscription is famous because it elaborates, lists the number of people who lived and worked on the temple grounds, presumably, which was supposed to be about 12,000 or 12,600 people,” Stark said. “And it lists what they did…there were various different functions. And in that particular case, the inscription also lists an additional 838 communities…We think they were something like villages, with an additional 81,640 men and women who were working for the temple.

“We have a few of those [inscriptions],” Stark said. “But the Ta Prohm inscription is the most famous and suggested that, even when you look at an Angkorian temple, you could imagine the people who not only built it but who had to support it. And the reason that inscription was so important is that it was the one insight beside [the 1296 report written by the Chinese diplomat] Zhou Daguan, and the only true description of what it took for a temple to function.

“I was interested because we hear a lot about kings, we don’t hear about the ordinary people,” Stark said. “So, I started doing these temple-enclosure excavations to try to understand who lived there…So we did work at Angkor Wat first—I worked there and then Alison [Carter] joined—and we worked at Ta Prohm between 2010 and 2015. It was really an honor to work there.”

However, these excavations did not produce the expected results, Stark explained. “[W]e were working at Ta Prohm: the very temple where the inscription says there were 12,000 people who lived there. Humans make trash and we just were not finding as much trash as we thought we should...It was becoming increasingly evident that so many people lived at Angkor and yet, we really couldn’t see them very clearly.” The thousands of people who have been at and around the site over the centuries may have contributed to erasing traces of the people of the Angkorian era.

So why choosing to research a site in Battambang province? One reason has been Chuch Phoeun, secretary of state of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Miriam Stark said.  When she worked on the Lower Mekong Archeological Project at the Angkor Borei site in the mid-2000s, Phoeun, who was the project co-director, kept telling her that she should look into Battambang province at some point.    

The project at Angkor Borei was focused on an early kingdom of Cambodia about which little is known, Phoeun and Stark explained in their overview on the project. “Called Funan or ‘Funanguo’ by visiting Chinese dignitaries in the 3rd century A.D., the delta and coastal-based polity or kuo (Chinese for country or state) reputedly contained elites described as ‘kings’ with whom the Chinese undertook tribute transactions for several centuries,” they wrote. “Documentary evidence suggests that the delta also housed multiple urban centers between the 1st-6th centuries A.D.” Carter joined the project team in 2005.

Then in 2010, Stark and later on Carter became involved in the Greater Angkor Project. This vast undertaking involved researchers from the Apsara National Authority—the Cambodian agency managing the Angkor Archeological Park—the University of Sydney in Australia, the U.S. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, France’s Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient (EFEO) that has been conducting research at Angkor since the early 1900s, and researchers from other international universities.

When she excavated on the grounds of the famed Angkor Wat, Stark’s goal was to find out how people lived during that period. “Angkor…is a powerful ritual sacred site,” she said during the interview. “But people, hundreds of thousands of people have lived there and have dug there, putting their plants and putting their houses. So, it’s more difficult to see the historical pattern of use in the temple complexes where we were than it is in places that are considered the provinces. And so, I was always interested in returning to the provinces to try to see whether we could study the rise of the state from the outside in.”

 “We were still interested in Angkor and the whole rise of the Angkorian civilization,” Carter said. “But we were curious about whether we might see a different pattern, or see a clearer pattern, if we got outside this densely-occupied capital.” So much so that the name on the first version of their research project was “Angkor from the Outside In.” In the end, they named their current project “Pteah Cambodia: ProjecT Excavating Ancient Households,” pteah signifying household in Khmer.

As for selecting Basaet—whose name is also spelled Baset—temple: Since the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts had been restoring the temple, this was an opportunity to complement the ministry’s work by finding out about the population that lived around, served and maintained the temple, Carter said. The two archeologists also hoped to find information on the lives of the people before and if possible after the Angkorian era. 

Senior field archeologist Suy Pov, left, and Leng Vitou of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts work to excavate a pyrotechnological feature during the 2022 field season. Photo provided

The Basaet temple research project conducted with the help of the villagers

With the authorization of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Stark and Carter started excavation work in 2018, working closely with the archeologists from the ministry’s office in Battambang province and with the ministry’s office Deputy Director Kim Sophorn who served as project collaborator.

And right away, the site proved even more interesting than expected. “We could see that there had been pre-Angkorian [settlements],” Stark said. “The longer we worked there, the more we loved it.”

Moreover, she said, “[p]eople in the community were extremely welcoming. They liked it. So, we just were happy to continue there. And there were good research reasons as well.”

During their first visit, Carter said, “[w]e walked around this village and everywhere we walked, you could just see artifacts, mostly ceramics, on the surface [ of the ground]…So, where we decided to work ended up to be partly places where it seemed there was less disturbed areas, or open areas where we could put excavation trenches and the land owners were supportive of us.”

Before starting to excavate, the archeologists had explained to the villagers what their work would involve.  Because unlike in Siem Reap Province where people in and around Angkor have seen archeologists at work since the 1900s and many Cambodians have worked with them, the villagers did not know what Carter and Stark would be doing on their home ground.     

“Because this is destructive,” Carter said. “[I]t’s annoying to have a bunch of archeologists digging in your backyard for something…if you have a field of vegetables…Some landowners were really interested in the history of their land and were really enthusiastic about us excavating on their land.

“One of the villagers who has worked with us since the beginning of the project was mentioning ‘you know, in my yard, I find ceramic all the time: Why don’t you come over and check it out.’ And so, we did,” Carter said. 

Working at that location soon produced great results and made Carter and Stark decide to remain at that site instead of also conducting excavations at other temples in the area. “The longer we worked there, the more we loved it,” Stark said. “We could see that there had been pre-Angkorian [villages]. So, we kind of got lured into it.” Although there were fewer intact deposits than they had hoped for around the temple, they did find inscriptions.

During their 2019 season, the two archeologists expanded the number of excavation sites. 

Then because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were only able to resume excavation in 2022. They expected to finish work that year but, by the end of the season, there still was one meter more to excavate, they said, to find out how many centuries people may have been living at that location. Therefore, they are returning this year. And since they both are university professors, this will be in-between terms.

Before leaving the site in 2022, they had had all the trenches filled as they had done in 2019. As Carter explained, “at the end of the season, we back-filled the trenches as it’s very dangerous to leave these giant holes in the ground for kids and animals and people in the village in general.”

A Village going back millennia

In their 2022 report on the project they named “PTEAH PROJECT -- Project Excavating Ancient Households” that was also released in Khmer, Carter and Stark list what was found in the 22 digs they have so far excavated. This range from fired clay, shell, and fauna discovered near a stove fragment and dating from the late 4th century to the mid-6th century, to large ceramic fragments and fragments of Chinese Ming ceramic at a site of the late 12th-early 13th century.

The two archeologists knew from their previous fieldwork that people lived at the site long before King Suryavarman I in the first part of the 11th century built the sandstone temple that can be seen today, and they wanted to find out whether life had changed during this transition into the Angkorian period that began in the early 9th century.

Prior to the construction of the Basaet temple, there had been a brick or wooden shrine or temple in the village—pre-Angkorian statues and lintels are believed to have been found at the site. The Angkor authorities’ decision to build a temple in that area would not have been mainly for religious reasons, Carter and Stark explained in the report. “Angkor’s economy was also organized around a network of temples including smaller village temples and larger provincial temples, which were frequently associated with elite families/officials…These temples compelled the labor of non-elites and proceeds from their labor enriched both the local officials and were sent to the state as tax and tribute.” 

Having the Angkorian empire maintain a strong presence in the region would also have been important since, they write, “inscriptional and historic data suggest that this part of northwest Cambodia was not fully integrated into the Angkorian state, and that some provincial areas within the Angkor Empire may have been more autonomous than others.” To the extent that some of them would send their own representatives to China to strengthen relations.

There would have been a number of reasons for Angkor to want the Battambang region integrated into the empire either by controlling the region or cutting a deal with its leaders, Stark said.

“It’s quite possible that you could just go from Angkor to Battambang across the Tonle Sap lake,” she said. “We think that happened actually…It’s a waterway, a transportation route as well. And Battambang has always been known as one of the rice granaries of Cambodia. It was a very important place for the Khmer state: It wasn’t just any old place.

“And arguably, it was also a kind of corridor,” Stark said, in the western region of the country. “That’s why the Thais wanted it: It was a corridor to central Thailand. We’re very interested in finding out what our Thai colleagues see on the other side of the border.”

“We’re making an assumption—but I think it’s a plausible assumption—that when a king comes in and builds a temple, they’re kind of marking their power and control over that landscape,” Carter said during the interview. “So, what we’re trying to understand is: Were there people living there before that temple was built, were they integrated already into the Angkorian empire, were they already using ceramics and stoneware like we see in the capital [Angkor] or do we see a shift happening. Could we see this also reflected maybe in the kinds of food they’re eating, the kinds of plants…the use of the landscape and the environment.

“And can we see any change over time, and does it seem that this may or may not be related to the construction of the temple, which might mark this area becoming more integrated into the Angkorian empire,” Carter said. “So, these are the questions, the kind of deeper…questions that we’re trying to address. And to answer such questions, I think we need more fieldwork to try to understand the dynamics between the provinces and the capital at the time.”

Under the guidance of field school director Seng Kompheak of the Angkor National Museum, students are drawing the wall profile of a fish pond within an ancient mound during the 2018 field season. Photo provided

Working in cooperation with Cambodian experts, and involving the authorities, the community and students

For years, Miriam Stark and Alison Carter have combined university teaching and fieldwork in Cambodia.   

Currently director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the U.S. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in United States, Miriam Stark has worked in Southeast Asia (Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand) since 1987.

In August 2022, she was appointed by U.S. President Joe Biden to the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee. The committee meets, she explained, “to review proposals for bilateral agreements to comply with the UNESCO 1970 Convention against trafficking in antiquities (cultural property). It takes a great deal of time to review the documentation and make thoughtful recommendations to the State Department, and I am honored to do this service for the profession.” In January 2023, the committee was to review Cambodia’s request to renew the Memorandum of Understanding with the United States that has led to the return of a large number of pre-Angkorian and Angkorian artworks and artifacts, which had been smuggled out of the country and brought to the United States.

Alison Carter is an anthropological archeologist whose focus is on societies of Southeast Asia. Having obtained her doctorate in 2013, she is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon on the west coast of the United States. In Battambang province, she is the principal Investigator and co-director of the project Pteah Cambodia: ProjecT Excavating Ancient Households, pteah being the Khmer word for house.

Stark and Carter, who for many years had worked in cooperation with the Cambodian authorities and researchers on their previous projects, did the same for their Pteah Cambodia project at the Basaet temple. At the project’s website—one section entitled “Our Partners and Colleagues” includes a long list of Cambodian institutions, officials and researchers in addition to international ones. This range from high-ranking officials and experts from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts, to specialized colleagues such as Chhay Rachna, ceramics training specialist of the APSARA National Authority, archeologist Suy Pov who was senior field archeologist in 2022, and Seng Kompheak of the Angkor National Museum who served as field school director in 2018. The list also includes international colleagues from western and Southeast Asian countries, volunteers who worked at the site as well as the Basaet Village people who were field crew members, and the project’s drivers. Plus Cambodian artist Y Lida who is working on an illustrated book about the project.

The list ends with “[a]nd last but not least, the landowners, workmen, and Phum Basaet citizens who welcomed us into their community.”

Regarding the specialists and archeologists as well as the archeology students of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), Stark said in interview that their support and contribution have proven invaluable not only during this project but also throughout all the years she has been conducting research and excavations in Cambodia.

Searching for information on the “ordinary” Cambodians of past eras

One of the very few—if not the only—sources of information about the life of Cambodians centuries ago has been the report written by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who arrived at Angkor in 1296 during the reign of King Indravarman III. In his official report on the country, he also wrote a detailed account of life in the capital where he spent nearly one year.

This being the only remaining source of information on life at Angkor, his text has been used and quoted countless times by researchers. But as Solang Uk and Beling Uk wrote when they studied the original Chinese version of his text, Zhou Daguan was a diplomat who, as he mentioned himself in his report, was simply a visitor in a foreign land. Being both scientists, they reviewed his report using the specialized knowledge they have of Cambodia. For example, Zhou Daguan called a plant he saw “xiong:” This plant whose roots are used in Chinese medicine does not grow in Cambodia, they wrote in their annotated version of his book “Customs of Cambodia” published in 2016.   

 Solang Uk is a Cambodian who studied biology in United States and spent his career as a senior research scientist in Great Britain and Switzerland; and his wife Beling Uk, who was born in China and studied biology in Taiwan, worked as a microbiologist in Switzerland. As they explained during an interview, Zhou Daguan wrote in ancient classical Chinese, which made translation the more complex. This is why the couple consulted versions of the book compiled by Chinese-language scholars in China, Taiwan and Cambodia in the 1970s and 2000s before publishing their book, they said.  

All this to say that, with so little information available on the life of Cambodians before, during as well as after Angkor, one of the few ways to know about them has been what Miriam Stark and Alison Carter are doing at the Basaet temple site in Battambang province: digging in the ground where people lived to find grids of their cities and villages, traces of their homes, fragments of objects they used.

And their work will not stop with the end of excavation on site. “Some of the best work we’ll do will probably take another 10 or 15 years,” Carter said. “Right now, what we can do is figure out how big was the site and what did it date to, what do we find.

“And then from there, there will be all kinds of specialists’ analysis that will go on maybe for decades and that will help us understand more about the economics of the interaction and something about the nature of cultural integration,” she said. “[N]ot perhaps ethnicity per se but some other measures of how this area became a really integral part of the Angkorian crown.”

In the meantime, Miriam Stark and Alison Carter are getting ready for their next field season in Basaet village in Battambang province, with Stark planning to return on site in May and Alison in June 2023.

Miriam Stark shows students fragments of objects found at the site during the community archeology day of the 2019 field season. Photo provided

Related Articles