An epigraphist studies a past carved in stone | Phnom Penh Post

Khmer stone inscriptions are the precious lanterns that light the way for scholars of Khmer history. They are the main source of information for the study of the centuries-old history of Cambodia, said Professor Hun Chhunteng.

Research specialist and lecturer in ancient inscriptions, he has more than 10 years of experience in the field. He holds a BA in Khmer Literature and an MA in Linguistics, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Khmer Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).

What are some of the most important things to consider for those interested in studying ancient Khmer inscriptions?

This topic takes a lot of time, effort, perseverance, and additional research outside of the classroom. A two-semester study period will not make anyone an expert, but provides an important foundation that should not be overlooked. Learners who lack passion for the subject will struggle, as a lot of extra work is required to gain a thorough understanding.

Also, a thorough knowledge of the basics of linguistics of other languages ​​such as Pali, Sanskrit, Ethos and local dialects is required.

French and English skills are also important in this area, as most historical research has been conducted in these languages. A broad knowledge of anthropology, history, culture, religion and ancient economics also contributes to our understanding of the inscriptions.

The subject has many public and private university students every year, because anyone studying Khmer literature, history, linguistics or archeology must be familiar with it. There are many areas of research that seek to extrapolate data from ancient writings.

I was studying Khmer literature and linguistics, and specializing in these inscriptions led me to learn more about the Khmer language. Examining the modern Khmer language alone does not provide a deep understanding of its characteristics.

Through what I have learned from the inscriptions, I have a deeper understanding of words, places, names, customs and traditions that date back to ancient times and continue to exist today.

How were the inscriptions discovered and when were the last ones found?

They have been discovered in various contexts and situations. Some were discovered by local people and protected, unbeknownst to researchers, to be encountered by chance. Others have been discovered more recently and caught our attention via social media.

In other cases, inscriptions have been discovered by archaeologists carrying out excavations. These are the works that have been the most widely publicized, so naturally more research on them has been published.

For me personally, the most recent listings I have come across were discovered on September 30th. These are fragments that were discovered in Reul Krom village of Dauntei commune of Ponhea Kraek district of Tbong Khmum province, near Banteay Prey Nokor. The inscriptions are the remaining fragments of a large inscription that was destroyed during the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) era, when it was used to sharpen knives.

The fragments provided very little information as only a few letters remain. We only recognize the name Jayavarman, but it also means Lord.

Meanwhile, a research project in Siem Reap province recently unearthed a new inscription on a 12th-century throne. It was cataloged K.1581 in the inventory of inscriptions. Of course, there are many unrecorded plays here and around the world.

What value do inscriptions have for us in modern Cambodia, and why should we continue to seek them?

The inscriptions are invaluable as a source of understanding all aspects of ancient society, from the words and deeds of kings and emperors to the daily lives of its subjects.

Through our research, we learned about the reigns of kings and wars with neighboring countries. They also taught us about linguistics and social issues such as social governance structures, economics and health. Thanks to them, we know much more about temple structures and ancient religious beliefs than we would otherwise know.

Experts in many fields have used information from ancient inscriptions to support their work.

What advice do you have for future members who wish to participate in the preservation of this rich source of heritage?

Well, the first thing is that anyone who discovers inscribed relics – even if they are unimportant fragments – must handle them with great care and report their discovery to the nearest Department of Culture and Fine Arts. .

Those who have the opportunity to practice this profession should consider themselves lucky, because of its fundamental importance to understanding our culture. They must keep in mind that what they learn in class represents only a fraction of the knowledge that they will have to acquire. Further study and constant research and consultation with those already working in the field are essential if a person is to develop their abilities.

Nowadays, many other countries offer masters or doctoral studies in the field of Khmer inscriptions – many non-Khmers are doing excellent work in this field.

In Thailand, for example, several universities offer it as a major, and many people graduate from these programs. Although we are the owners of the inscriptions, we Khmers do not yet have many formal programs on the subject.

In short, becoming an expert in this field requires a lot of study. There is a tight job market for those with a bachelor’s degree, but anyone completing a master’s or doctorate will certainly find work, perhaps as a lecturer at a university.

It is important to realize that we cannot do this work alone, as no one person will ever be an authority in all aspects of the work. For example, those who specialize in ancient Sanskrit may need to work closely with anthropologists to understand the deeper meaning or context of the words they are deciphering.

What was the academic path that brought you into this field, and could you share some highlights of your published work?

I obtained a scholarship at the Royal University of Phnom Penh from 2007 to 2011, and I chose Khmer literature as a major.

At the end of the preparatory year, I learned from some of the senior students that in the second year, I would study Pali, Sanskrit and inscriptions. My friends and I tried to prepare for this by conducting our own research, although it was difficult to find many published works on these subjects. When it was time to learn these new scripts and languages ​​in class, it was still very difficult – and my teacher was very strict.

After two semesters, I had learned most of the ancient characters, although I still didn’t understand their meaning. Even after completing these courses, I continued to revise what I had learned, and even printed out copies of ancient inscriptions to try to understand them.

At the beginning of 2010, I met Chao Veasna, a student of Dr. Pou Saveros, one of the great Khmer epigraphers who was the Khmer linguistic scholar of the century. She helped my friends and I study ancient inscriptions every Sunday afternoon. After more than a year under the tutelage of the teacher, I had a better understanding of the ancient words and phrases, and it brought me deeper into the meaning of the inscriptions.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I pursued a master’s degree in linguistics, which included additional study of inscriptions.

I have been studying and working in this field for over 14 years. To date, I have spent 10 years in my teaching career, although I started as a trainee teacher before becoming a university lecturer.

Although I published a small work during my second year of study – on a small inscription which my friend Mao Dim and I discovered near his house and researched – it took several years before my work be widely published.

In 2018 I published 12 articles in a special issue of Kampu Sorya magazine which focused on registrations. In 2019, I was lucky enough to be featured in the magazine. My work has also appeared in the Royal University of Fine Arts research journal and a book, How to write Tevneakri letterswas published by the Buddhist Institute.

More recently, I co-authored an article with renowned Sanskrit scholar Dominic Goodall, which was published in the 13th edition of medieval worlds.