Louise Cort is curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler.
Plop! … Plop! Oh dear, are those fat raindrops striking my ultralight tent? And is there a crowd of people outside the tent speaking French? Those were among the confused thoughts of my first night camping in Cambodia. I awoke to realize: No, not raindrops but large, glossy, oval leaves from the trees above our forest campsite. And, not French but Khmer, as people from the nearby village arrived before daybreak to cook breakfast for the members of our kilnsite excavation workshop.
Some twenty of us were camped at the foot of a mound concealing a kilnsite that had last been seen by the potters who operated the kiln in the twelfth or thirteenth century, using it to make large brown-glazed stoneware storage jars. (We knew that much from fragments of jars scattered over the mound.) Our job was to excavate the kiln, exposing it once again in order to understand the technology that made it work. Like a fingerprint, the kiln’s distinctive structure would offer clues to its place in the chronology of ceramics production during the centuries when the great urban complex of Angkor was capitol of much of mainland Southeast Asia.
Asleep beneath thatched roofs and mosquito nets elsewhere in the camp were seventeen young archaeologists from Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Yunnan (China), and Germany. Also out there were Australian archaeologist Don Hein and Cambodian archaeologist Ea Darith, who would share their knowledge and experience with us. A grant awarded to the Freer|Sackler by the Henry Luce Foundation made our gathering possible.
I’m writing this while temporarily back at the museum, but I’m acutely aware of activities at the campsite, twelve hours ahead around the globe. The daily schedule there: wake-up, breakfast, morning briefing, work, lunch and rest, afternoon briefing, work, bath, dinner, sleep. In a few days, I’ll return to Cambodia, and to my tent, and to the kiln. Can’t wait.
Learn more about Southeast Asian art in our collections.