Cultural heritage at risk: Cambodia

Prasat Bram temple, Koh Ker, Cambodia (photo: BluesyPete, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Prasat Bram temple, Koh Ker, Cambodia (photo: BluesyPete, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cambodia contains within its modern borders innumerable archeological sites documenting more than 6,000 years of human habitation. Known sites cover the entire span of Southeast Asian history. They range from Paleolithic rock shelters, to open-air village sites that document the adoption of agriculture, bronze and iron metallurgy, to the formation of the earliest historic states which began to connect Cambodia to the world, and to the rise and fall of the Khmer empire that controlled much of mainland Southeast Asia from the 9th century to the early 15th century C.E.

This collective cultural heritage is seen as a source of national pride by most Khmer, especially when international collaborative projects can thoroughly excavate and document a site and share the findings with local communities and the world. In regards to the numerous examples of historic period monumental architecture that dot the countryside, those of the UNESCO World Heritage list such as Angkor Archaeological Park have become a great source of revenue thanks to mass tourism.

By the end of 2012, according to the Tourism Cambodia, Cambodia had received in excess of 3.5 million tourists, a figure that increased during each of the five years covered by the last MOU. Such tourism has proven to be a great source of economic revenue, but is also a primary factor fueling the looting of archeological sites to feed Cambodia’s continuing illicit antiquities trade.

What is at stake for Cambodia?

Many archeological sites, especially prehistoric cemeteries, remain undiscovered or improperly documented and thus vulnerable. Many smaller temple sites dating to the time of Angkor Wat’s construction (c. 12th century C.E.) and before also remain unexcavated, unmapped, and poorly known, although Cambodian governmental authorities such as APSARA, as well as established NGOs such as Centre for Khmer Studies, Heritage Watch, and the Memot Centre, have been doing their best to document and excavate or salvage as many sites as possible.

Despite these efforts, some historic period Khmer temple sites, especially smaller or more remote complexes (e.g. Preah Khan Kampong Svay, Koh Ker), have suffered recent looting or remain at risk. The ornate sculpture and statuary sites, such as these, are part of an art historical corpus that collectively covers every stylistic phase of the Khmer Empire as well as the precursor states of Funan and Chenla. Losing them to further looting and trafficking would do irreparable harm to future research.

Late prehistoric burial mounds (Iron Age, c. 500 BC-500 C.E.) are discovered underneath village houses and gardens and looted before they can be recorded (e.g. Prohear in Prey Veng Province, and Phum Snay and Phum Sophy in Banteay Meanchey and Badtambang Provinces). Even Bronze Age to early Iron Age (c. mid-1st millennium B.C.) “circular earthwork” sites, such as Memot and Krek 52/62 (in the “Red Earth” region of Kampong Cham province), have fallen prey to unplanned development.

Although multimedia awareness campaigns administrated by internationally collaborative NGOs and increasing action by Cambodian archeological, museum, and governmental authorities continues, it remains a race against time to discover and document archeological sites before looting occurs. The fundamental issue remains: how to balance the needs of local communities for stable, licit incomes (to which archeological tourism can contribute) with the need to preserve intact sites, excavate them when possible, and share new discoveries with diverse stakeholders.

For more information on what categories of artifacts are looted from Cambodia’s prehistoric and historic archeological sites, please consult the ICOM “Red List.”

The U.S. market demand for antiquities

Looting in Cambodia is fueled by the high demand for Asian antiquities on the global market. According to Sotheby’s website, 189 pieces of Cambodian origin have sold for more than $100,000 (U.S.) in the last few years. Some pieces can even fetch much higher prices. For example, during Sotheby’s 2012 March sale of Indian and Southeast Asian Art in New York, a statue of the goddess Uma, carved from polished brown sandstone and dating to the Baphuon period c. 11th century C.E. (lot 249), was sold for $530,000 (U.S.), while another Baphuon brown sandstone sculpture of Uma sold at Christie’s (lot 63) on September 23rd, 2004 for $1,127,500 (U.S.).

Legal and public relations battles between the Cambodian government and Sotheby’s auction house continue over the fate of a c. 10th century C.E. statue from remote Koh Ker. Many pieces present on the art market, especially prehistoric artifacts, do not have a clear provenience, first surfacing no earlier than the mid-1980’s. According to Davis (2011),  approximately 80% of the 345 pieces of Cambodian origin that appeared at auction between 1988 and 1995 had no published provenience. Despite increasing scrutiny, auction houses both large and small tend to prefer “business as usual” if it is considered feasible or profitable.

What is Cambodia doing to protect its heritage?

Even though the Cambodian government has limited financial means to help protect its heritage, it is still making laudable efforts to safeguard major sites outside of the Angkorian complex. The APSARA authority and their international colleagues have been leading the effort to create a national database of all historic period monumental architecture sites, whether associated with Angkor or not. Furthermore, permission for all new archeological excavation or restoration projects must come from them.

Nevertheless, Cambodia has some legal means already in place that can help to stem the flow of antiquities when consistently applied. In 1996, Cambodia’s Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage was enacted. This allows for a Cambodian artifact to be returned to the country if there is evidence proving that it was in Cambodia after 1996. Furthermore, Cambodia has ratified the 1970 UNESCO “Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” and the 1995 “Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.” These conventions provide the principal means through which signatory states can cooperate in an effort combat the illicit trade in antiquities and thus diminish the loss of cultural heritage globally.

For ten years Cambodia and the United States have held a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding cultural property. When fully enforced in both Cambodia and the U.S., it permits only those artifacts with a valid export license from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to enter the United States. The MOU also facilitates the prosecution of offenders and provides a strong legal foundation for repatriation claims involving U.S. public and private institutions.

Thankfully, the MOU with the United States was amended and extended for an additional five years, effective September 19, 2013; however, this does not mean Cambodia’s heritage is no longer at risk.

Cite this page as: SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), "Cultural heritage at risk: Cambodia," in Smarthistory, January 12, 2018, accessed June 14, 2024,