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Bioarchaeology of Angkor Borei, Cambodia:
Overview of Project

 Two seasons of field excavation, in 1999 and 2000, of a portion (4 x 5 m trench) of a prehistoric cemetery located at Vat Komnou, Angkor Borei, Cambodia, resulted in the recovery of at least 50 inhumation burials. This work was part of the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project (LOMAP), under the direction of Dr. Miriam Stark of the University of Hawaii (UH) and the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh. Calibrated dates reported by Stark (2001) indicate that the cemetery may have been in use from approximately 200 B.C. to A.D. 400, dates that coincide with the early historic period in the Mekong delta. Grave goods found to be directly associated with the human remains include carnelian and glass beads, pig skulls, and globular jars. Other artifacts, including ceramic sherds, whole vessels, metal wire, shell, and very small amounts of gold leaf were also recovered through these excavations (Stark 2001).

The integrity of these human remains ranges from complete skeletons to only a few bones. Many of the burials are commingled (in one case the remains of at least five individuals are represented) and lack clear grave cuts. The incomplete and commingled nature of the remains is due, in large measure, to past disturbances of this stratified and densely packed cemetery, often resulting in subsequent interments in the same location. As well, excavation technique (e.g., portions of the skeleton that extended outside the excavation unit were not recovered) has impacted skeletal completeness. Overall, the preservation of the Angkor Borei skeletal remains is poor to fair, only a few burials can be characterized as being well preserved.

Despite these drawbacks, the bioarchaeological research project now being conducted at the University of Hawaii under the direction of Dr. Michael Pietrusewsky and Ms. Rona Ikehara-Quebral, will provide a wealth of information, biological and cultural, on the life history of the people buried at the Vat Komnou cemetery. The information collected from the skeletal remains will provide direct evidence of the health, disease, physiological stress, injury, physical activity, subsistence, length of life, and cultural modification of bone and teeth of these early historic people associated with early Khmer culture.

Thus far, the human skeletal remains, many of which were lifted en-bloc by the excavators for transport to the laboratory in Hawaii, have been thoroughly cleaned and inventoried. Very few of the individual bones were intact at the time of excavation, but extensive mending efforts have resulted in partial or full restoration of many of bones of the infracranial skeleton. Several crania have been nearly or partially restored. Due to postmortem taphonomic processes, many of the crania are warped.

 The methods used to analyze the skeletal and dental remains generally follow those used in the analysis of a large series of skeletons from Thailand (Pietrusewsky and Douglas 2002). Standard methods of analyzing these remains include determining age-at-death, sex, estimation of stature, recording of metric and non-metric variation and paleopathology in the skulls, infracranial skeleton, and teeth. Each individual burial will be documented according to its archaeological context, completeness and preservation, age-at-death, sex, stature, skull variation, skull paleopathology, dental observations, dental paleopathology, skeletal variation, and skeletal paleopathology. Using all these individual data, a summary of the bioarchaeological data recorded in the Vat Komnou cemetery sample will form the basis of future comparisons with other skeletal series from other sites and regions in Southeast Asia.

Although the analysis of these human skeletal remains is ongoing, preliminary observations indicate that the remains of both subadults (infants, children and adolescents) and adults of all ages (young to old) are interred at Angkor Borei. In general, the adult skulls and long limb bones are of robust proportions. Thus far, examples of tooth caries, moderate to extreme tooth attrition, and evidence of periodontal disease are noted in the dental remains. Carabelli’s cusp, an accessory cusp most frequently observed in the first maxillary molars, occurs in several deciduous and permanent dentitions. Many of the teeth exhibit staining most likely due to chewing betel nut. Another possible cultural modification of teeth, filing, is also observed in these remains. Individuals with healed fractures of the cranium and/or infracranial skeleton were buried at Angkor Borei.

 The Vat Komnou cemetery sample constitutes the largest archaeological skeletal sample excavated from Cambodia. Once completed, this bioarchaeology project involving the inhumation remains from Angkor Borei will produce the first comprehensive skeletal analysis of an early historic period human skeletal assemblage from Cambodia.

Preferences Cited:

Pietrusewsky, M., and M.T. Douglas 2002 Ban Chiang, A Prehistoric Village Site in Northeast Thailand I. The Human Skeletal Remains. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

Stark, M. 2001. Some Preliminary Results of the 1999-2000 Archaeological Field Investigations at Angkor Borei, Takeo Province. Udaya: Journal of Khmer Studies 1(2):19-36. (PDF Document)

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