Recently Cambodia (along with its neighbors Thailand and Laos) celebrated new year. This seemed like a good time to report on one or two interesting outcomes of a study trip to Cambodia last year.
Four hours of dusty, bumpy dirt road northwest of Angkor lies the 800-year-old temple complex of Banteay Chhmar. The complex is so spread out and so ruinous that no picture can suggest its extent and importance. The site is so remote that until 2008 it had not been cleared of landmines. It has also been a target of looters; entire sections of wall have been stolen by well-organized, well-armed raiding parties.
Now, though, Cambodian and Western archeologists are working together on the clearing and restoration of Banteay Chhmar—a process that will take decades.
While I was there, a Cambodian archeological team discovered a large demon head and were able to reunite it with its body. They were eager to record their latest accomplishment. They clustered around the restored figure for photos—insisting that my hosts and I join in—and passed cameras so that everyone got a photo with themselves in it. (I’m the second from the right).
A large head in a style related to that of Banteay Chhmar has been in in the Asian Art Museum’s collection for many decades. When I showed a photo of it to Hab Touch, a respected Cambodian archeologist and senior official with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, he asked if the sculpture might not be of cement. Over the years, as the heads of Cambodian sculptures have been stolen for sale on the international art market, cement replacements have sometimes been made. If the sculpture were one of an identical set, and other heads from the set remained, a mold would be taken from a genuine head and a cast, very close in appearance to the original, made in cement.
I assured Hab Touch that our piece had every appearance of being original, but he reminded me how much genuine Cambodian sandstone and cement made with Cambodian sand might resemble each other. Recently, Mark Fenn of our museum’s conservation lab has confirmed that our head is indeed cement. So much for the certainties of an American curator. Cheers for the sharp eyes of a Cambodian archeologist!
Seriously: we’re always eager to learn more about art objects in the museum’s collection, and to correct our records, even if it means discovering that a work is a reproduction.
I’ll be giving a talk on the study trip to Cambodia and more of its results related to the Asian’s Cambodian collection on the evening of May 3.
For those interested in the current political situation in Cambodia, here’s a recent interview from Australian radio.
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