Archaeological and palaeo-environmental investigations of the Pre-Funan period in the Mekong delta of Southeast Asia
excavation site is located in the midst of Prohear village in Prey Veng province about 65 km due east of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and 40 km west of the border with Vietnam. About 65 km to the south is the Bronze Age salt making centre and Early Iron Age burial site of Go O Chua, where the German Archaeological Institute together with Vietnamese archaeologists has been carrying out excavations from 2003 to 2006.
In Spring 2007, one of the richest prehistoric burial sites of Southeast Asia was found in Prohear village but almost completely looted by the villagers. In May 2007, an Archaeology student observed and reported this looting to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and to the archaeologists of the Memot Centre in Phnom Penh. Cambodian archaeologists visited the site but could not stop the looting. During the period up to the beginning of 2008, the villagers dug up the whole area of the burial site and sold all the archaeological artefacts to middlemen representing antique dealers. In less than a year, countless burials dating back 2000 years were systematically destroyed. Very likely more than 1000 gold and silver objects and about 32 bronze drums were immediately channelled into the illegal antiquities trade.
Prohear is very likely one of a larger group of burial sites that contain the burials of both locals and expatriates from Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi and Giao-chi who fled from the growing danger of Han Chinese expansion between the end of the 2nd century BC until 43 AD. This is the time between the Yelang lost their independence on the one hand, and the dead of the Trung sisters, leaders of the Nan-Yueh people in the Red River Delta. This time span from the end of Yelangs to the end of Nan-Yuehs independence fits exactly with mortuary period II in Prohear with the most richest equipped burials.
In southeastern Cambodia, the number of investigated late Bronze - Iron age burial sites from the last millennium BC and the first millennium AD is still small and our insight into the cultural development of this period remains fragmentary. At the sites of Vat Komnou/Angkor Borei (Takeo province) and Village 10.8 (Kampong Cham province) about 100 burials of the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD with many offerings have been discovered. Further, about 50 burials excavated at Go O Chua in Long An province in southern Vietnam provide additional information from the late phase of the Pre-Angkor period (The prehistoric salt-making centre and burial site of Go O Chua in South Vietnam).
With its unusually rich offerings, the burial site of Prohear surpasses all expectations. The burial sites of this region show clear cultural similarities (e.g. high pedestalled bowls of the same shape and ornamentation), but also display strikingly distinctive local features. Thus, the wealth of gold offerings is without comparison at any other burial site of the early Iron Age period in this region and the great number of bronze drums from the site - although mostly undocumented - is hitherto unique for the southern parts of mainland Southeast Asia, far away from the Dong Son cultural area. Therefore, it is our aim to save as many graves and finds as possible.
The emergency aid promptly offered by the DAI for a Cambodian-German excavation could not be realized because permission for the excavation was only granted in November 2007. Only the main road through the village was spared from looting because it is municipally owned and much frequented. This 4 metres-wide path was the goal of the archaeological campaigns in spring 2008, 2009 and 2011 carried out by the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures of the German Archaeological Institute and the Memot Centre Phnom Penh.
During three excavations a length of 58 m of the road with 168 m2 have been uncovered by the German Archaeological Institute in Cooperation with the Memot Centre Phnom Penh. About 76 burials were saved. The upper find layer is in a depth of 0.6 m with scattered ceramic sherds covering the burials that may be from a post-cemetery occupation.
A camera team of Deutsche Welle accompanied Prof. Leisen's temple rescuers on their adventurous expeditions and observes Dr. Reinecke's gold diggers on one of their final "emergency digs" in Prohear.
Further information can be obtained from the Website of Deutsche Welle.
The discovered artifacts have to be restored, documented features have to be analyzed in context with similar richly-equipped burials in southern Vietnam; for example, with the newly-published site of Giong Lon near Vung Tau where the first golden eye masks in Vietnam have been found.
Since 29th November 2010, the most precious artifacts from the first and second excavation at Prohear and from another Early Iron Age burial site at Village 10.8 (Kampong Cham province) that was excavated also with German support are displayed in the exhibition at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. A second exhibition was opened on 26 March 2011 at the provincial museum in Prey Veng.
Many of the 76 discovered burials were left intact by the looters in the upper layers, but below they had been undercut and destroyed by 2.5 metre-long lateral tunnels dug about 0.8 m under the surface of the path.
Two burial periods are recognizable from the different offerings and depth of the inhumations.
The period I burials fall between 500 to the second half of the 2nd century BC.
This includes five inhumations with the heads orientated east or west and very likely all of the discovered 7 jar burials. None of these burials were equipped with gold or silver offerings but with jewelry made from stone beads, mostly garnet, and bronze or iron bracelets.
All the other 64 graves are unified in period II (about 150/100 BC-AD 100) by the same head orientation to the south, or to the southwest. By differences in the funeral equipment, we can separate two mortuary phases (a and b) of period II.
One exceptional offering was found in a burial of period IIa: 20 green glass earrings, that had clearly been threaded onto a string made from organic material, were found on both sides of the skull. Besides, some bronze bangles, iron tools or weapons and garnet beads were also found in this inhumation.
Typical for the younger period IIb (about 100/50 BC-AD 100) are bronze drums and other bronze objects from southern China or northern Vietnam, fine orange ware ceramics and gold or silver jewelry.
Despite so many partly looted and destroyed inhumations, 31 burials still contained gold or silver ornaments, mostly finger rings or earrings, although four bracelet from silver and gold were found too.
Three of the 76 excavated burials were equipped with bronze drums or parts of them. Male burials could apparently be recognized by stone pestles placed between the thighs; female burials by spindle whorls. According to information from the villagers, about 5 percent off all burials had a rich complex of offerings. "Rich" in this context meant about 10 ceramic vessels of different shapes and sizes, one bronze drum, 5-15 gold ornaments and some iron or bronze offerings, as well as glass beads.
In both periods, the dead lay on their back with the head oriented to the south-southwest and with their hands lying to the side of the body or on the chest. Burials of the younger period had hardly any preserved bones, but their head orientation could be identified by means of the earrings and other finds distribution in the grave.
The excavated area gives only a small random impression of the cemetery as a whole. However, besides burials of women and men there were some inhumations of children discovered too. At the bottom of a large ceramic jar, fragments of a bronze bangle with lower arm bones were found lying directly on top of a pig mandible.
By means of all the looting holes in the village, the dimensions of the cemetery are easy to estimate at about 130 x 150 m; thus nearly 20,000 m². The excavation area is situated at the centre of the burial site. Here, an average of one grave was found for every 2-3 square metres. This means that we have to assume that at Prohear more than thousand burials may have been looted. Despite the heavy destruction of the site, from these small excavated areas alone it is clear that this cemetery is one of the most exceptional find complexes of the Pre Angkor period in this region.
Our Cambodian partners are archaeologists from the Memot Centre, Phnom Penh: Vin Laychour and Seng Sonetra (Memot-Centre).
Scientific cooperation efforts exist with:
Archaeozoological investigations: Prof. Dr. Norbert Benecke (Natural Scientific Department of the Head Office of the German Archaeological Institute)
Bioanthropological investigations: Simone E. Krais (University of Freiburg, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Anthropology)
Glass and precious stone analyses: Alison K. Carter (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Radiocarbon dating: Dr. Bernd Kromer (Radiometry Research Group, Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Heidelberg)
Strontium isotopic analyses used to detect primarily non-local individuals: Marina Vohberger (Biozentrum der LMU München, Department Biologie I Bereich Anthropologie )
Metal analyses (gold and silver): Prof. Dr. Ernst Pernicka, Dr. Roland Schwab, Dipl.-Arch. Sandra Schlosser (Curt-Engelhorn-Centre for Archaeometry, Mannheim)
Metal analyses (bronze): Thomas Oliver Pryce (Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Oxford)
Thanks of the support of the German Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Federal Foreign Office's "Cultural Preservation Programme", the conservation of the finds from Prohear is in progress since 2008. Two numerous complexes of the most precious objects are presented in the exhibition of the National-Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and in the exhibition of the provincial museum in Prey Veng.
Andreas Reinecke / Vin Laychour / Seng Sonetra 2008: Der Alptraum von Prohear: Archäologie in Deutschland 6/2008, 12-17.
Andreas Reinecke / Vin Laychour 2010: The Early Iron Age cemetery at Prohear, Prey Veng province in Southeast Cambodia: Excavations and results of new analyses: Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: Newsletter, Issue 6, 7-11.
Simone Krais/Seng Sonetra 2010: The skeletal remains from Prohear: Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: Newsletter, Issue 6, 11-13.
Andreas Reinecke/Vin Laychour 2011: The third excavation campaign at the Iron Age cemetery Prohear, Prey Veng province: Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: Newsletter, Issue 7, 8-9.
Simone Krais/Seng Sonetra 2011: The skeletal remains from Prohear: Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: Newsletter, Issue 7, 10.
Simone Krais/Michael Francken 2011: Tooth blackening at the Bronze Age sites of Prohear (Cambodia) and Go O Chua (Vietnam): Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: Newsletter, Issue 7, 11-12.
Sandra Schlosser/Andreas Reinecke/Roland Schwab/Ernst Pernicka/Seng Sonetra/Vin Laychour 2012: Early Cambodian gold and silver from Prohear: composition, trace elements and gilding: Journal of Archaeological Science 39:9, 2877-2887.
Simone Krais/Andreas Reinecke/Seng Sonetra/Vin Laychour 2012: The Bioanthropology of the Early Iron Age site of Prohear (Cambodia): ZAAK 4, 103-125.