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Luce Year Update: Alexandra McDougle

Alexandra McDougle, one of our Luce scholars, recently submitted this update on what she got up to while studying and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I started my Luce Year in Cambodia in June of 2016, and returned to the States at the end of July 2017. I was based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory. I spent my first two months in country in daily Khmer lessons through a program with The Center for Khmer Studies(CKS). In September, I was able to begin my placement working with the Ministry. My work was primarily split between the National Museum of Cambodia and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The National Museum houses a large collection of artifacts that have been recovered from various archaeological sites throughout the country, as well as artifacts that have been repatriated from museums around the world. I focused on learning and facilitating basic conservation processes for stone, metal, ceramic and textile artifacts. Each lab focused on maintaining internal collections, while also assisting smaller museums throughout the country with restorations. I was able to work with the Stone Conservation Lab alongside the École Française D’Extrême-Orient to assist the the processing and restoration of a series of 9th century statues that have been recently repatriated to the NMC’s collections. These statues originated in a 9th century temple in Koh Ker, and were stolen and sold to international art markets shortly before the Khmer Rouge Period. In the early 2000’s they began to be identified and returned to the Kingdom of Cambodia. At present they are undergoing restoration with the staff of the Stone Conservation Lab and EFEO.

Alexandra and other woman examining a statue Alexandra doing archive work Alexandra brushing off a statue

With the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I worked alongside the research and archival team to develop an exhibit focusing on the experiences of Children during the Khmer Rouge Period. The exhibit focused on gaining and understanding of education, and the experiences of child labor and child soldiers during the Khmer Rouge Regime. My job was to develop a literary review that could be used to provide historical context to the collection of oral histories developed by the museum staff.

In addition to working with museums, I was able participate in an excavation as a joint mission between the Ministry of Culture and the French-Cambodian Prehistoric Mission. The excavation included archaeologists from the Ministry, students from the Royal University of Fine Arts, as well as visiting archaeologists from Thailand and France. We spent 3 weeks in Battambang province excavating the Laang Spean Cave site. A lot of the archaeology I’ve done has been centered in the relatively recent history in the Pacific, so the experience to explore an entirely new period while dealing with faunal remains that we don’t typically see in the Pacific was amazing.

group of people standing for a picture in a field
Alexandra and others at dig site

Aside from work, I was really lucky in that I was able to travel throughout Asia to visit other Luce Scholars during the year. Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, is incredibly diverse and full of a rich history that we don’t often see or think about as much as we should in North America. Over the course of the year I was able to travel to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal. Spending time with my cohort of Luce Scholars has pushed me to look for more interdisciplinary approaches to archaeology. Among the 18 of us, our professional interests ranged from public health, to film and theater, to education. It was amazing (and inspiring) to hear from such different voices.
Now that I’m back in the states, I’m working to connect some of my friends and colleagues from Cambodia with my professors and mentors from the United States. I’m hoping to see more collaborations in both archaeological and bio-anthropological research between anthropologists from the U.S. and Southeast Asia in the coming years.

group of smiling people, including Alexandra