The Role of Conflict in the Looting and Destruction of Cambodian Temples in the Late 20th Century

As with many countries around the world, Cambodia carries a complicated and destructive history. These conflicts have aided in the looting and destruction of its heritage sites, especially ancient temples.

One of the most famous Cambodian examples is Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple built in the 12th century in honor of the god, Vishnu (Glancey 2017). During the Khmer Rouge regime and collapse, heritage sites like Angkor Wat became places of destruction caused by war in the latter half of the 20th century. Protection, maintenance, and access to Angkor Wat was limited because of the Rouge’s presence in the surrounding area (Glancey 2017). Even if the fighting wasn’t going on at the site itself, surrounding fights made the area dangerous and abandoned by tourists, locals, and site caretakers (Reap 1997). This hurt the influential tourist trade, meaning less money to fund the upkeep and protection of the site (Reap 1997).

Hindu Temple Angkor Wat (Image by Vincent Ko Hon Chiu)

However, it is not just oppressive regimes that directly destroy archaeological sites. The Khmer Rouge looted heritage sites and temples, but also prevented the protection and continued study of temples like Angkor Wat. In addition, the Khmer Rouge contributed to the desecration because its collapse meant that Cambodia was no longer shut off to the world, therefore open to foreign looters and the illegal antiquity trade. People like Khmer Rouge leader, Ta Mok, had 20 to 30 tons of stolen artifacts at his home when he was arrested in the late 1990s, but “as the Khmer Rouge communist insurgency [collapsed]…many hidden site have suddenly become open to the raiders” (Mydans 1999).

Looted artifacts from the Cambodian temple, Koh Ker (image from Fresh News Asia)

In Cambodia’s case, the attempt to protect archaeological sites can also create conflict. Cambodia and Thailand clashed when the temple, Preah Vihear, was declared to be in Cambodian territory in 1962. This was only exacerbated when Preah Vihear was promoted to World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2009, a “conflict resulting in several civilian and military deaths” (O’Reilly 2009). Throughout the 2000s, the dispute resulted in various damages to the temple itself by both Cambodian and Thai gunfire (UNESCO 2011).

Cambodian temples, and heritage sites in general, are not only culturally significant for their origins, but also for the power struggles that they create. These conflicting power struggles can be over the sites, in the case of Preah Vihear, or damage the sites, as seen at Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. While looting and raiding erase important archaeological evidence and context for the purpose of an individual’s gain, the occurrence themselves is another chapter in the story of the history of the sites.

Additional Reading:


Glancey, Jonathan. “The surprising discovery at Angkor Wat.” BBC. March 14, 2017. Accessed October 24, 2017.

Mydans, Seth. “Lost temple looted by Cambodian raiders.” The Guardian. April 01, 1999. Accessed October 24, 2017.

O’Reilly, Dougald J. W. . “Cambodia: Cultural Heritage Management.” 2009. Accessed October 24, 2017.

Reap, Matthew Chance Siem. “Cambodia’s war threatens Angkor Wat.” The Independent. July 13, 1997. Accessed October 24, 2017.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “UNESCO to send mission to Preah Vihear.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. February 8, 2011. Accessed October 26, 2017.

Photo Sources:

Chiu, Vincent Ko Hon. “Angkor (Cambodia).” Digital image. UNESCO World Heritage List. Accessed October 26, 2017.

Fresh News Asia. Looted Cambodian Artifacts. Digital image. Fresh News. March 30, 2016. Accessed October 26, 2017.

Viking Hoard Archaeology: Complicating the Plundering Stereotype

While Vikings are historically viewed as violent, plundering people, the archaeology of Viking hoards has added some intricacies to their story that may seem surprising and contradictory to the typical trope. At the Viking hoard at the site of Fröjel on the Swedish island of Gotland, archaeologists uncovered evidence of violence and coercion to obtain and maintain their wealth, but also signs of trade, business, diplomacy, and international relations. In addition to evidence of external affairs, metal workshops and techniques to determine pure silver versus impure silver show a high level of intelligence and technology.

An excavation unit at Fröjel of a silver-smelting workshop (Photo by Daniel Weiss)

The location of Fröjel on the island of Gotland, Sweden (image created by author using Google Maps)

The vast count and variety of coins found shows just how far the Vikings traveled or at least the origins of the people they traded with; several of the artifacts signify further travel than the Vikings were originally thought to have undertaken. Archaeologists and historians can use the coins and foreign products to trace the distances and connections of the world for a point in time when a lot of the globe was not very accessible.

In regards to the structure of the island and its governance, the locations and changes of concentrations of the hoards indicated shifts in power, allowing archaeologists to sketch a potential timeline for the island and the Vikings who lived there. The earlier hoards were dispersed throughout the island, demonstrating a distribution of wealth. However, as time passed, the later hoards became larger and more concentrated, illustrating how the population’s wealth and power was held by the fewer Vikings who were burying it.

In addition to the physical artifacts that the hoard revealed, it also changes the interpretation of land use and alludes to other potentially significant sites nearby. Before the discovery of vast Viking activity across the island, Gotland was believed to be mostly used for farming. The significance of the hoards led to the successful search for a nearby Viking cemetery and a hypothesis that the arm jewelry found was made on the island turned up a workshop.

Hoards are fabulous stashes of artifacts of a particular moment in time, but it is not easy “to distinguish between hoards originally intended to be recovered and valuables buried with no reclamation intended” (Renfrew, Bahn, 47) Regardless, both interpretations indicate the hoards contained items that were specially valued. However, due to the assumption that these hoards are specially valued, archaeologists have a hard time investigating the more day to day parts of Viking culture from sites like these. The Principal Investigator of Fröjel, Dan Carlsson, can speak to great lengths about the significance of silver coins in the Viking culture, but can he point to any evidence from the hoard that shows what they ate on a daily basis? For further research and study, additional Viking hoards, like ones found in Scotland and England allow a variety of other historical discoveries that complicate and enhance history as we know it.

Additional Reading:


Photo Sources: