Scholarship helps uncover secrets of Khmer stoneware

Published 29 June 2012

Khmer stoneware elephant potAn archaeology student from the University of New England has embarked on the trip of a lifetime thanks to a generous travelling scholarship that has allowed him to visit Thailand and Cambodia.

Darren Mitchell, a Ph.D. student in the School of Humanities at UNE, will spend several weeks working in the South East Asian Ceramics Museum in Bangkok, Thailand, before travelling to Cambodia to participate in an archaeological excavation at the Ta Prohm temple in the Angkor Wat complex, study stoneware kiln production in and around Angkor, and visit the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

Mr Mitchell’s travel expenses have been met by a Keith and Dorothy Mackay Postgraduate Travelling Scholarship.

Using portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) spectroscopy – a non-destructive technique being pioneered at UNE for analysing archaeological materials – Mr Mitchell is hoping to uncover new insights into ceramic technological innovation and the political and economic changes that lead to the rise and fall of the Khmer empire.

“At its height, the greater Angkor area was one of the largest urban centres in the world, with a potential population of one million people,” Mr Mitchell said.

“Besides the world-famous ruins at Angkor, the Khmer left behind many ceramic artefacts and monuments across present day Cambodia and Thailand. By taking an archaeometric approach, I have been able to compare stoneware sherds with intact artefacts held in museum collections around the world.”

Earlier this year, Mr Mitchell travelled to Washington DC to visit the Freer and Sackler Galleries of South-East Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institution. There he was able to analyse numerous Khmer artefacts that had never before been put to archaeometric analysis.

“It is an unfortunate historical fact that many of the ceramic objects in world museum collections were the result of looting,” Mr Mitchell said. “While it is a good thing that the objects have been preserved, all too often you wind up with a group of beautiful objects sitting there without any context.

“As archaeologists, part of our job is to help provide that context.

“In the past, archaeometric analysis of these objects had not been done because it would have meant drilling into the objects and taking samples to send off for various time consuming and often expensive laboratory studies. Almost inevitably, this meant destroying or damaging the artefact.

“The beauty of the techniques we are using at UNE is that museums are no longer concerned with us studying their collections or worried  that artefacts may need to be taken out of the country. I can do the analysis right there in the museum. It’s an exciting development for museum curators, art historians and archaeologists alike.”

Mr Mitchell said he was excited about undertaking his first field trip to Southeast Asia, especially after having studied the area for several years.

“It’s very pleasing to be able to travel around,” Mr Mitchell said. “Many researchers doing this kind of work typically stay in a lab in Australia, but I’m getting out there and making loads of useful contacts.”


Further information

Contact: Darren Mitchell


Mitchell, D., Grave, P., et al. 2012. Geochemical characterisation of north Asian glazed stonewares: A comparative analysis of NAA, ICP-OES and non-destructive pXRF. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39, 2921–2933.