Special: The Repatriation of Cambodian artefacts

Yesterday (10 Mar 2011) I had the brilliant opportunity to witness the return of artefacts smuggled out of Cambodia by the Australian government at a ceremony at the Cambodian embassy in Canberra. The reception was hosted by His Excellency Chum Sounry, the Ambassador for Cambodia.

Repatriated artefacts from Australia to Cambodia
Repatriated artefacts from Australia to Cambodia


As you can see, the artefacts consist of various bronze adornments, including bracers and bangles, some of which still house the bones of the individuals who wore them. The repatriation is a culmination of a year-long investigation stemming from a listing of some of these artefacts on the auction site eBay, which were traced to an antiquities gallery in Melbourne. Australian customs agents seized a number of artefacts from different origins, among them bronze funerary objects with in-situ human remains. The Cultural Property Division of the Australian Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, with the assistance of Dr Dougald O’Reilly of Heritage Watch (and now also the Australian National University), ANU PhD student Damien Huffer and various archaeological agencies in Southeast Asia ascertained that the most likely origin for these artefacts was Cambodia. Measures were subsequently taken to officially return the seized artefacts to the government of Cambodia.

 

HE Chum Sounry (right), Ambassador for Cambodia, addressing the reception at the Cambodian Embassy in Canberra
HE Chum Sounry (right), Ambassador for Cambodia, addressing the reception at the Cambodian Embassy in Canberra

Speaking about the artefacts at the ceremony, Dr O’Reilly noted that the artefacts, dated to about 2,500 years old, represent a not-well-known period of Southeast Asian prehistory, with the current knowledge suggesting that this was a period of increased militarisation in organised settlements and possibly a forerunner to the rise of the civilisation of Angkor. Dr O’Reilly noted that the seized artefacts only represented the tip of the iceberg of looted antiquities from this part of the world, as looters are increasingly turning to prehistoric remains, and that such activity prevented the further understanding of the past when ripped from their contexts.

Ripped is the right word too. Take a look at these artefacts, and you can still see the bones sticking out from them:

Bronze bracelet(?) looted from a prehistoric Cambodian site
Bronze bracelet(?) looted from a prehistoric Cambodian site
A pair of bangled lower leg ornaments, ripped from a burial from an unknown site in Cambodia
A pair of bangled lower leg ornaments, ripped from a burial from an unknown site in Cambodia

You can read a news release from the Australian National University here.
Update (14 March 2011): Read Damien’s personal account here.

Special thanks to Dr. Dougald O’Reilly for letting me attend the ceremony, and to Damien Huffer for the background info.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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