Imagining Angkor: Politics, Myths, and Archaeology
Speaker: Prof. Miriam Stark (Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa)
Time: 4:00 - 6:00 pm, 14th October, 2016 (Friday)
Venue: Lecture Theatre (L1), Institute of Chinese Studies, CUHK
Text: Sarah Chong
Angkor, as the capital city of the Khmer Empire for several centuries, has been mysterious and alluring in the eyes of many people. On 14th October 2016, our department and the Centre for Cultural Heritage Studies invited Prof. Miriam Stark from the Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa to give a public lecture on Angkor, helping to unveil the mystery of this place. The public lecture was co-organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Chiang Ching-kuo Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies, and the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO). The history of Khmer Empire and Angkor, dating back to the 9th century all the way to the 15th century, have been the study interest of scholars of different fields. Prof. Stark adopted a historical approach to present her arguments and highlighted the importance of Angkor as a cultural heritage. Three major topics—politics, myths and archaeology—were discussed in the talk.
Angkor is “intrinsically political”, as Prof. Stark described. It has been regarded as a representation of the entire country. Angkor Wat was always the key element on the national flags of Cambodia in different regime—from the flag of the French Protectorate of Cambodia starting from the Mid-19th century, to the flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia between 1950 and 1970 and the flag of the Democratic Kampuchea (the period of the Khmer Rouge). Prof. Stark emphasized that even today Angkor Wat has an important role to play not only in the national flag of Cambodia, but also in people’s everyday life. For instance, the image of Angkor Wat as well as the slogan “My Country, My Beer” can be found on the packaging of one of the most popular beer brands in Cambodia.
The myths of Angkor have also framed the ways people view the past of Cambodia. In her talk, Prof. Stark discussed how Angkor has been imagined or interpreted by different groups of people. The European, as the outsiders, tend to portray Angkor with the image of Angkor Wat. The Musée Guimet in Paris has significant collections of the Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian artifacts and the replicas of Cambodian ancient temples’ fabrics. The Khmer, as the insiders, link up Angkor with different symbolic meanings. For the locals, Angkor is the key of their national identity and the sacred place of religion. Even when the Cambodian people moved to the refugee camp in Philippine during the Khmer Rouge regime, they built the model of Angkor Wat there, reflecting the importance of Angkor to them. Angkor, being a basic component of the Khmer identity, has significant influence on how people define Cambodia as well as how the Cambodian define their nation state.
“If you want to understand Angkor, you must do archaeology,” Prof. Stark said. Prof. Stark emphasized how archaeology plays its role in reconstructing the picture of Angkor. Archaeological research helps to reveal the history of Cambodia from the early historic period (500 BCE), to the Pre-Angkorian period (500 CE), as well as the Angkorian period (1000 CE) and the collapse of Angkor (1500 CE). Prof. Stark also talked about the Greater Angkor Project III, which is a collaboration of various institutes. The project sheds light on the Angkorian urbanism in different periods. Prof. Stark shared her experience of participating in the project, with a special focus on the archaeological research on people’s lives in the past, including their residential pattern, where they lived and how they used the space.
People from different countries are doing archaeological research in Cambodia now. Prof. Stark pointed out that development is an opportunity for the country but at the same time a very big challenge to Cambodia’s archaeological record. Fortunately, the Ministry of Environment and other stakeholders have been working together to ensure the protection of heritage and the continuous development of economy.