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    Several prehistoric sites are known in Cambodia (inc. Samrong Sen, Anlong Phdao, Melou Prei, and Laang Spean). It is...

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Several prehistoric sites are known in Cambodia (inc. Samrong Sen, Anlong Phdao, Melou Prei, and Laang Spean). It is believed that many more prehistoric sites exist, but have yet to be discovered. However, remnants of circular earthwork villages dating from the Neolithic times are found in the province of Kompong Cham.

Ancient stone, bronze tools and weapons, enigmatic bronze drums similar to those found at the Dong Son site in Vietnam (thought to be used in rain and war ceremonies), and ancient ceramics have been found and documented. Current archaeological research into Cambodia’s extensive prehistory will no doubt provide better insight into the lives of the people who made these objects, and give us a more concrete time-frame for their dates of manufacture.


Recent archaeological excavations at Angkor Borei (in southern Cambodia) have recovered a large number of ceramics, some of which probably date back to the prehistoric period. Most of the pottery, however, dates to the pre-Angkorian period and consists mainly of pinkish terracotta pots which were either hand-made or thrown on a wheel, and then decorated with incised patterns.

Glazed wares first appear in the archaeological record at the end of the 9th century at the Roluos temple group in the Angkor region, where green-glazed pot shards have been found. A brown glaze became popular at the beginning of the 11th century and brown-glazed wares have been found in abundance at Khmer sites in northeast Thailand. Decorating pottery with animal forms was a popular style from the 11th to 13th century. Archaeological excavations in the Angkor region have revealed that towards the end of Angkor period production of indigenous pottery declined while there was a dramatic increase in Chinese ceramic imports.

Direct evidence of the shapes of vessels is provided by scenes depicted on bas-reliefs at Khmer temples, which also offer insight into domestic and ritualistic uses of the wares. The wide range of utilitarian shapes suggest the Khmers used ceramics in their daily life for cooking, food preservation, carrying and storing liquids, as containers for medicinal herbs, perfumes and cosmetics.


Use of bronze-casting began in Cambodia sometime between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE. It is widely assumed that this technology was introduced to Southeast Asia through contact with the Chinese, but the possibility of independent development of bronze casting in Southeast Asia has yet to be conclusively ruled out. Whatever the case, bronze-casting had become a major industry throughout mainland Southeast Asia by 500 CE - at which time bronze was used to make a wide range of tools, weapons, ritual objects and ornaments.

After Indian political and religious ideas began permeating Cambodia (around the time of Christ), a tradition of casting bronze Hindu and Buddhist divinities emerged. This tradition reached its pinnacle of output and skill during the Angkor period. The large bronze figure of the ‘Reclining Vishnu’ (late 11th century) demonstrates the level of mastery which Khmer bronze artists achieved. The museum’s Bronze Gallery contains bronzes dating from the 7th to 20th century.

Besides the objects which were made in veneration of religious divinities, the other types of bronzes on display can be divided into two categories: ritual objects and secular goods. Many of the ritual objects in the collection, including popils (stylised candle holders), bells, bowls and conches for ritual water, are still used in a variety of Khmer ceremonies today. Many of the secular goods are objects which would have been bestowed by the royal court as insignia of rank for officials. These include ornate hooks for palanquins, gilded rings from the handles of parasols, fans, and military or official seals.

Pre-Angkor period

Recent excavations at a site known as Angkor Borei and earlier work at Oc-Eo are confirming that this region was the site of important kingdoms that predate the Angkor empire - those of Funan and Zhenla (Chenla).

The oldest known Khmer stone sculptures date to the early 6th century and were found in cave temples which were carved into the side of Phnom Da, a small hill near Angkor Borei. Angkor Borei, today a small town in the Mekong Delta region, was a major city-centre within what is thought to have been the first large-scale centralised Khmer state (c.1st-6th century; often called ‘Funan’ as it was denoted in Chinese annals of the period).

The Phnom Da sculptures were carved from single blocks of fine-grained sandstone and depict both Buddhist and Hindu divinities. Although the sculptures reveal traditional Indian stylistic influences, one can also see that the Khmer artists strove to break away from their mentors. Moving away from the Indian tradition of sculpting in high-relief, the Khmers attempted to make free-standing statues, supported by an arch or by an attribute of the divinity (such as a piece of clothing or a hand-held object).

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the power base shifted north to the plains east of the Tonle Sap Lake. Funan’s dominance ended when King Isanavarman I established the first capital of this new power centre (called ‘Zhenla’) at ‘Ishanapura’ (Sambor) in present day Kompong Thom province. In the 8th century, Zhenla was divided into two competing powers, ‘Land Zhenla’ and ‘Water Zhenla’. This situation remained until Jayavarman II set up a capital on Mount Mahendraparvata (Phnom Kulen) in the Angkor region in 802 and successfully unified the Khmer people.

The majority of the sculptures from Zhenla and Funan depict Vishnu, while another popular deity, Shiva, is usually symbolised by a linga (stone phallus). Pre-Angkorian sculptors often combined these two Hindu divinities into one deity, called Harihara. Statues of Buddha and other Buddhist divinities were also popular with pre-Angkorian artists of both Funan and Zhenla. The Zhenla period saw an increase in relief carvings on stone lintels and pediments.

Angkor period

Cambodia is rich in sandstone deposits. Throughout the Angkorian period, sandstone was quarried from the Kulen hills (to the north of Angkor) and floated on rafts along rivers and canals to the building sites.

The first recognisable art style of the Angkorian period is the Kulen style (c.825-75), named after the hill on which Jayavarman II built his capital and had his royal consecration ceremony initiating the cult of the devaraja (god-king) which would be followed by all subsequent Angkorian kings. This style was the first to dispense with supporting arches - as a result the figures became heavier. The body is sculpted rigidly upright with distinctive Khmer features - round faces and broad brows.

The Koh Ker style (941-944) shows another interesting development with gigantic figures - human and animal, captured in dynamic movement. ‘The Wrestlers’ and the ‘Monkey Kings, Valin and Sugriva’, are good examples of this style. In contrast, the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is unique in the intricacy and richness of the decoration, and the warm tones of the pink sandstone.

The statues of the Baphuon style (1010-1080) are slim and graceful. This was made possible by adding subtle supports behind the ankles. The eyes are often incised and they may have been fitted with gems and precious metals.

The Angkor Wat style (1100-1175) presents the highest achievements in architecture and ornamentation of buildings and bas-reliefs. Besides the world famous Angkor Wat temple, Phimai temple (in Thailand) was also constructed during this period. Sculpted figures are upright, muscular and formal, and are prominently adorned with ornate belts and jewelled necklaces and bracelets.

The Bayon style of the late 12th to early 13th century, produced a great number of Buddhist images due to the religious preference of King Jayavarman VII. Still highly revered today as one of the greatest Khmer kings, Jayavarman VII, although a devout Buddhist, was tolerant of other religions as evidenced by the combination of Hindu and Buddhist symbols in Bayon art. An example of this is the portrayal of Buddha wearing a diadem (ornamented crown) similar to that normally worn by Vishnu. The intention was to portray the Buddha as a powerful universal monarch in keeping with the contemporary images of Hindu gods. Another defining aspect of the Bayon style is the development of portraiture-particularly the portrayal of royalty in the guise of Buddhist deities.

Post-Angkor period

Not long after the end of Jayavarman VII’s reign, stone art production and monumental temple building become almost non-existent in Khmer culture. With the wide-spread conversion to Theravada Buddhism (c.15th century), wood becomes the primary medium for Khmer sculpture. Although wood would have certainly been used for statues since pre-Angkorian times, due to its susceptibility to rapid decay, only a small number of wood statues have survived from the late Angkorian period.

In post-Angkorian wood sculpture, artists began applying one or two layers of lacquer which played a decorative as well as protective role. Also during this period, artists developed the technique of decorating wood figures with encrusted ornaments - frequently using ivory, mother-of-pearl, or vitrified lead inlays. Most of the wooden statues in the museum’s collection were carved in the last few centuries. One can see varied influences in many of the post-Angkorian works of art.

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