Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

November 24, 2015

Cambodian temple photo

Cambodia has hundreds of temples and other artifacts dating back to the Khmer Empire of Angkor, which Ball State history professor Ken Hall will study when he returns to the country in December.

Ball State University’s Ken Hall will travel to Cambodia next month to continue his decades-long effort to discover more about the ancient Angkor civilization in relation to modern-day Southeast Asia.

Hall, a history professor, will spend four weeks in December conducting an international field study at a number archeological sites of the Khmer Empire of Angkor, which existed from the ninth to the 15th centuries. It was centered in modern-day Cambodia, but at its height in the 11th and 12th centuries, it included eastern and central Thailand.

“Thanks to the combined efforts of international mine clearance teams such as HALO, major temple complexes are now open to the public,” Hall said. “However, there remain significant secondary temple sites that are not yet accessible due to the necessity of landmine and battle residue clearance, for the safety of local populations, and for scholars and tourists as well.

“Fortunately, most of the Angkor temples have survived the era of Cambodia’s civil war, in contrast to the severe site damage in neighboring Vietnam due to the Vietnam War. Several major Hindu and Buddhist temples in central Vietnam were substantially destroyed by American bombers, because they were being used by Viet Cong troops for ammunition storage.”

In recent years, Hall noted, Cambodians have a renewed interest in their past, and the Angkor Wat, a temple complex that is one of the largest religious monuments in the world, has taken on special significance as the country recovers from decades of violence.

“Cambodia’s highways have been rebuilt with Angkor at its center and spokes leading to major secondary Angkor-era temple sites on rebuilt Angkor era roads,” he said. “These rebuilt roads are also sustaining agricultural expansion into previous wilderness, as these highways allow the movement of cash crops and people to urban markets.

“Previously marginalized regions are conspicuously using agricultural profits to build new schools and better housing. Most notably, Cambodians have restored national unity grounded in the Angkor-era legacy, which is symbolized by the placement of Angkor Wat at the center of the Cambodian flag.”

Filling in the historical gaps

Hall has traveled to Cambodia several times, including as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 2012. Currently a senior fellowship scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, Hall will serve as the Angkor-era wider Southeast Asia historical specialist for the project at two pre-Angkor urban sites in northeast Cambodia.

Hall (center) will travel to Cambodia to continue his research on the Angkor civilization, which existed from the ninth to the 15th centuries.

He will work with other academic specialists from Cambodia, Singapore, Australia and France, and 14 archaeology graduate students from colleges in Southeast Asia. The senior scholar team members are specialists in art history, environmental issues, ceramics, religion, anthropology/archaeology, laser technology (for satellite lasers to map and identify underground artifacts and building foundations), and electronic and chemical analysis.

“I am also literally working in the dirt, supervising archaeology graduate students and local crews at excavation sites,” Hall said. “Initial test sites will give us a better sense of site value and overall coordination, which will lead to more extensive excavation in areas that seem to have the greatest significance.

“The outcome of these archeological recoveries will fill gaps in our knowledge of regional history. This follows excavations in June that redirected the origin of the Angkor civilizations to northeast Cambodia’s agricultural and ritual centers rather than the earlier speculation that Angkor’s roots were along the Mekong River in southeast Cambodia.”

Drastic changes in past two decades

When Hall first visited Cambodia in late 1990s, the country was still reeling from its violent past.

"Initial test sites will give us a better sense of site value and overall coordination, which will lead to more extensive excavation in areas that seem to have the greatest significance."

Ken Hall,
history professor

Like Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia had been a protectorate of France from the mid-19th century until its independence in 1953. Soon, it was caught up in the Vietnam War, then plunged into a bloody civil war. The Communist Khmer Rouge won in 1975 and caused the deaths of millions during a genocide that lasted until 1979.

The Khmer Rouge technically was ousted when it was defeated at the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1979-91), but the post-war remnants of the Khmer Rouge were still in power on a regional basis until 1998. Then a popular elected government — led by a former Khmer Rouge official — took office.

“During my first visit to Angkor in 1998, when I was one the few adventurers there, I remember most the number of war victims I saw with missing legs and arms consequent to landmines,” Hall said.

Only the core Angkor temples were accessible at that time. Hall’s goals was better situate the data from the Angkor-era inscriptions collected by French and other Western scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries before the Khmer Rouge era. His efforts, however, went beyond academic scholarship.

“On a subsequent 2002 trip I spent part of a day with a HALO Trust team doing mine-clearance at secondary temple site, which allowed local farmers to cultivate the adjacent land and archaeologists to survey the property.”

Country enjoying political stability

Hall points out that political stability has positive consequence for historians and archaeologists, but there also is a race to preserve historical sites in competition with new development projects.

“Since the late 1990s, Cambodia has sustained a significant increase in tourism, much of it focused on the Angkor temple complex at Siem Reap,” he said. “International assistance, including designation of Angkor as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has initiated the stabilization and reconstruction of endangered temples. And international tourism has had a major impact on the reconstruction of Cambodian civilization economically and culturally.”

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