Singapore field school's excavation at Angkor Wat unearths ancient guardian statue

SINGAPORE - An archaeological field school from Singapore which set up a 12-day excavation at Cambodia's Angkor Wat, has helped unearth a rare, late 12th century statue.

Buried in a pit about 40cm deep, the approximately 2-metre tall sandstone statue, sculpted in the image of a guardian, was dug up on Saturday (July 29) at the ancient Tonle Snguot hospital complex, just two days into a test excavation.

The find has been described by experts the world over as incredible and the most significant in recent years since most of the site's valuable items have been looted.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Wednesday (Aug 2), head of the field team, Dr Kyle Latinis from Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (NSC), said: "It is extremely rare to discover something so significant just days into our dig. We were lucky and in the right place. We also had a good sampling strategy.

"You do not expect to find statues with their heads intact at Angkor Wat because looters are rampant in these areas and most of the ancient Cambodian statues are held illegally in the hands of private collectors."

The field school and excavation are funded by Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at the cost of about $70,000, said NSC head Dr Terence Chong.

This is the field school's fifth session. It is a three-week archaeological research and training programme held in Cambodia and Singapore.

The site was selected by NSC as well as researchers from the Apsara Authority - the Cambodian state agency charged with managing the Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Singaporean team scoped the project, sampling area and directed the excavation effort. This was done in consultation with Apsara Authority, the host partner. The aim is to investigate ancient hospital activities, habitation and structures.

The programme is designed to emphasise the history of intra-Asian interactions over the past 2,000 years and to create a regional identity and a community of scholars from East Asian Summit countries.

There are 14 participants this year, four of whom are from Singapore. The others hail from countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia. They are students and young professionals.

While NSC set up the excavation, the statue was recovered by Cambodian archaeologists, among others. The statue has since been moved to a museum for protection.

Archaeology undergraduate Natalie Khoo, 22, said: "To witness the rituals conducted for removal of the statue, and (to have) the opportunity to work on this historical hospital site, is an exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The statue likely came in a pair and flanked a temple or shrine area that was part of the hospital complex, said Dr Latinis.

He added that the statue likely collapsed near the original spot it was first erected in, along with the temple wall.

"Although the statue is broken in a few places, it is near complete. It likely collapsed after the site was abandoned," he said.

He added that the other two sections of the hospital complex were dedicated to physical treatment and a medicinal plant garden.

There were about 100 hospitals built by the 12th century King Jayavarman VII who reigned from 1181 to 1218. He was known as the king who had launched the largest and most numerous construction projects.

Prior to that, the Tonle Snguot site had likely been inhabited by a community before it became a hospital. It is unclear how big the hospital complex is as of now and more work needs to be done.

Dr Latinis said that a lot of ceramics, statues and structural remnants have been unearthed so far.

"A whole bunch of questions on the architectural history as well as technological information and industry of the time will be answered," he added.