Keo Kinal (by Daniel Robinson in Cambodia, Lonely Planet, p. 284)
Apsara danced and seven-headed nagas stood guard when the archaeologist Keo Kinal was born, inside the Angkor Conservation compound in Siem Reap. The year was 1973 and his father, the eminent archaeologist Pich Keo, was in charge of Angkor Conservation and its huge collection of Angkorian statuary, the last director before darkness descended.
Mr. Pich was one of only three Cambodian archaeologist to emerge alive from the Khmer Rouge terror. ‘He survived’, say his son, ‘because he didn’t wear glasses’, and he managed to keep secret his identity as an intellectual and a speaker of French – both tantamount to a death sentence under the Khmer Rouge – while he worked like a coolie…to transport fish from the lake to provide for the community. My mother, as other ladies, worked in the rice fields’. Kinal’s elder brother died of malnutrition and illness in 1976.
When I spoke with Kinal at Sambor Prei Kuk (Above), where he was overseeing an excavation 3m under the floor of a pre-angkorian brick temple, he was, as usual, accessorized with a dashing krama. His team had just uncovered a delicately carved stone block and he was helping two men in hard hats clean it off. As damp earth was brushed away, the outline of an elegant deity emerged.
Despite being born with a silver archaeologist’s trowel in his mouth, Kinal did not grown up dreaming of following in his father’s muddy footsteps. ‘In reality’, he says, ‘I was not interested in archaeology at all. I wanted to study in the faculty of Medicine but I failed the (admissions) exam. Then I took the exam for literature – but failed. The next exam was for the faculty of Economics. But still I fail! The fourth one was engineering. But again I fail – because of money: I cannot pay” – under the table – ‘to “pass” the exam. So my father suggested that I apply for archaeology. That exam I could pass!’
From 1991 to 1996 Kinal studied in the Faculty of Archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts and after graduation spent three months in Nara, Japan, at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. ‘That was my first winter because in Cambodia, no winter!’ he laughs. ‘It was my first time seeing snow! Before, I saw snow on the TV, finally I have a chance to play in snow. We rode snow saucers and excavated under the snow’ – just what you’d expect an archaeologist to do. In 2003, Kinal returned to Japan to do a master’s degree at the prestigious Tokyo National University of the Arts.
Back in Cambodia, Kinal found himself lecturing on Western art history at the Faculty of Archaeology. ‘While I was a lecturer, I had the chance, with the sponsorship of Unesco, to visit Rome for one month. I visited many, many temples, including the Colosseum and, of course, the Pantheon. But the most interesting for me were the catacombs.’ He still can’t get over the sheer size of the Pantheon, nothing that its dome is 43m in diameter and ‘the hole in the top’ – the oculus – is ‘9m in diameter – that is fantastic!’
Surprisingly, perhaps, there seem to have been points of contact between Pantheon-era Rome and Funan-era Cambodia. ‘From the 2nd century AD we have the maritime trade from the Roman Empire, crossing the (Mekong Delta) port of Oc Eo, to China’, Kinal explains. As for the Roman coins unearthed at Oc Eo, which is in the Mekong Delta about 70km south of Angkor Borei (p238): ‘When merchants stopped there probably they used (Rome) coins to do exchanged’. In ancient Cambodia all the roads most certainly did not lead to Rome but, it seems, at least one did. Kinal hopes to follow it someday soon back to Italy: ‘I wish to visit other places, especially Pompeii and Venice’. (Keo Kinal lives with his wife, Mrs. Toun Sorphea, on the grounds of Angkor Conservation in Siem Reap and works for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts).
Formation: Keo Kinal has been formed by Prof. Danielle Guéret for the skill of Archaeology of Bassin Mediteranean, and he continued to teach this subject at the Faculty of Archaeology in Phnom Penh.
His last day: Keo Kinal has passed away on the ambulance along the National Road N° 6, direction from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. He died at the point of the top of Stung district at the overnight of November 12th to 13th 2011 at 3h00 a.m (local time).