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Reviewed by:
  • Society, Economics, and Politics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia: The 7th-8th Centuries
  • P. Bion Griffin
Society, Economics, and Politics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia: The 7th-8th Centuries. Michael Vickery. The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for UNESCO, The Tokyo Bunko, Tokyo, 1998. 486 pp, 5 maps, 4 plates, 3 tables, bibliography, and index. Paperback $50.00. ISBN 4-89656-110-4

Michael Vickery, a genuine "Old Cambodia Hand," has offered us a volume full of meat to chew on—not tough old sinew, but a large roast, ranging from rare to well done, and offering much for many tastes. While the anti-Marxist, anti-materialists may foolishly suggest Vickery's work suffers from "mad cow disease," I suggest that for once we have a clearly, if densely, argued view of the nature of the evolving pre-Angkorian society of the protohistoric Khmer. The volume has, for the archaeologist, an especially clear and useful theoretical foundation. Vickery, a Marxist historian, tackles the "Asiatic Mode of Production," looking at the Khmer from the earliest indications of adoption of Indic religious trappings until, but not including, the great Angkorian civilization, which begins about A.D. 800. His effort is not to further examine the genealogies of rulers as an end in itself, but to use the primary source of stele texts, especially those in Old Khmer, to understand the changing organization of society, of the cults, and, most importantly, the economic system on which society, politics, and religion was based. I emphasize that the source of the data comes from the written record, carved on stone, and speaking directly to the matters of concern noted. Vickery argues that previous scholarship has neglected these data, instead focusing on kingly matters. He discusses the textbook understanding of pre-Angkorian Cambodia, how this understanding was gained, and what is wrong with it. He then proceeds to examine anew the contemporary data, the inscriptions that are the basic pre-Angkorian sources. He does not privilege Chinese sources, and certainly shies from adopting European models of feudalism, kingship, and social organization. His analyses of the works of the late George Coedès and of Claude Jacques, today's pre-eminent French epigrapher and historian, are intimate and unsparing. Michael Vickery certainly has the credentials to approach the pre-Angkorian; a historian of Cambodia since the 1960s, he has published voluminously on the entire range of Khmer history and has examined the necessary data for decades. Never one to shirk raising difficult questions, or avoid stirring up old passions, he has, in this monograph, "told it as he sees it."

My review of Vickery is undertaken as an archaeologist, not a historian, epigrapher, or even as an "Old Cambodia Hand." My interests in ancient Cambodia began in 1994, with my initiation of the University of Hawai'i/East-West Center/Royal University of Fine Arts program in Khmer studies. After my colleague, Dr. Miriam Stark, assumed directorship of the archaeological program at the ancient city of Angkor Borei, my own attention turned to wide-ranging questions concerning the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods. I [End Page 139] review Vickery's monograph as one excited about the thoroughly argued insights it offers and its many leads for model building and hypothesis generation for future archaeological research.

The monograph is logically organized, making following the arguments relatively easy. Chapter 1 is the "Introduction." In it we are offered an unusually clear justification for the theoretical foundations of the study and an overview history of the pre-Angkorian, beginning with Funan (approximately early in the Christian era) in the Mekong Delta and southern Cambodia. Much of the thesis of the rest of the work in encapsulated in this narrative. The less diligent student could obtain the heart of the matter by a careful reading of the Introduction. The rich supporting data and arguments would be neglected, as would the kernels that spark ideas for new research. Chapter 2 is "Pre-Angkorian Cambodia: The Historiographic Situation," and Chapter 3 the "Pre- and Proto-Historic Background." Chapter 4, "The Pre-Angkor Inscriptions," is followed by "The Cult Component" and "Divisions of the Population." Chapter 7, "Social Structure...


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