Exhibition sheds light on life in prehistoric Cambodia

Origins of Empire

The exhibition features ancient remains and artefacts unearthed at Phum Sophy in Cambodia.

Life before the rise of the Angkorian Empire is on display in Phnom Penh, in an exhibition of prehistoric finds unearthed by Australian and Cambodian archaeologists.

The exhibition, 'Origins of Empire. Cambodia's Prehistoric Past: Archaeological Remains from Phum Sophy' now showing at the National Museum of Cambodia showcases archaeological treasures uncovered during excavations led by

Dr Louise Shewan of Monash University, Dr Dougald O'Reilly from the Australian National University, and Cambodian colleagues from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodia. 

"While much is known about the great Khmer Empire centred on Angkor which flourished from the early 9th to the mid-15th Century C.E, little is known about the daily life, health, social organisation and patterns of human mobility throughout Cambodian prehistory," Dr Shewan said.

'Origins of Empire', showing until 30 October, is one of the first exhibitions to focus solely on life in the Iron Age; the period preceding the rise of the state. It features excavated skeletons and numerous artefacts from the rich burial assemblage discovered at Phum Sophy (c. AD 300) Banteay Meanchey Province, during excavations in 2009 and 2010.

Artefacts on display include exotic glass and stone beads made from agate and carnelian, restored ceramic vessels, conserved metal implements and tools, and jewellery such as bronze toe and finger rings, bangles and pendants. 

Dr Shewan specializes in the isotopic analysis of archaeological skeletal material, such as preserved human teeth. Her work provides important insights into how people lived, by detecting, in enamel, chemical signatures from food and drinking water, which give clues to the peoples' mobility and settlement behavior. Teeth form during childhood and preserve a chemical signature that provides information about an individuals living environment during their early life. 

Dr Shewan and Dr O’Reilly, supported by the Australian Research Council, have led several archaeological excavations in an attempt to shed light on pre-Angkorian life and emerging socio-political complexity. 

"Our research seeks to understand the developments in prehistory that led to the rise of what was then South East Asia's most powerful state," Dr Shewan said.

Dr Shewan also leads the 500 hearts program to screen children for heart disease in the villages where she and her colleagues conduct archaeological research. In 2011, 500 children from the village of Sophy were examined by a team of Australian and Cambodian volunteer doctors and medical students.

Origins of Empire. Cambodia's Prehistoric Past: Archaeological Remains from Phum Sophy is showing at the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, until 30 October 2013. It is supported by the Australian Research Council and ANZ Royal Bank.