Archaeology Student Natalie Khoo Talks Travel Grants and Lucky Finds

Our travel grants allow our students to do some amazing things. We spoke to 3rd year Archaeology student Natalie Khoo, who recently went on a trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia where she uncovered more than she expected.

“I first got interested in archaeology when I took a gap year and volunteered at an archaeology unit in Singapore. The first project was a rescue urban excavation at Empress Place, where the site was being threatened by redevelopment in the city centre. We unearthed 1 tonne of 12-13th century ceramics being traded in ancient Singapore's shorelines, and it revealed to me a side of my country's past that was never mentioned in text books. This experience made me decide to want to pursue archaeology in university. 
Studying archaeology at the University of Cambridge has taught me many theoretical frameworks - ways to think - about a range of issues. Of course we are also exposed to many ancient sites and cultures in terms of content, but I think the best part is being taught how to think about the past in ways that are relevant to us now. Theories like Collective Action Theory, for instance, are not only taught, but are theorized by our University lecturers themselves. We are asked to challenge ways of thinking that privilege hierarchical structures, or traditional societal configurations. It's also fun going on field trips with a bunch of other people who like old things. 

I received a travel grant from St Catharine’s, thanks to my Director of Studies Dr Gilly Carr and tutor Dr Tim Rogan, to excavate a 12/13th century hospital-chapel site in Angkor Park, in Siem Reap. It is part of a field school organized by ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), a regional research institute based in Singapore. I got a chance to excavate a small pit with 3 other teammates. The site manager initially spotted a sliver of ceramic poking out of a mound, and we decided to open a 1 by 1 metre test unit. After we started excavating by 10cm levels, we found that the sliver of ceramic turned out to be the back of a naga (snake), with a mandala inscription on the snake sculpture. We also found that it was only one of three sculptures in the pit, and we decided to extend the pit further. In all, we found four statues of Buddhistic figures, one of which is a Bhaisajyaguru, or medicine Buddha, the first of its kind to be found in-situ in Cambodia. The rarity of it, and its existence of it in a hospital site was particularly significant to understanding the nature of hospitals in 13th century Angkor, and about the nature of rulership. It was truly a lucky find and an experience I will never forget, being in the right place at the right time. 

Besides excavating, we went on site visits to Sambor Prei Kruk, a newly minted UNESCO world heritage site, Angkor Wat, among others, with Cambodian archaeologists who told us much about the place. 

I intend to return to Singapore to work in archaeology, and be involved more in Southeast Asian archaeology.”