Since 2021, a joint research team comprised of archaeologists from the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC), geologists from France and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and researchers from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) has unearthed ancient mining and metal production sites in Preah Vihear province’s Chheb district.

The culture ministry announced that five diverse archaeological sites have been identified, each offering insights into the region’s past.

Choan Sanlong, spanning over 10ha, encompasses two ancient ponds, an iron mine and a copper mine. At Phnom Yeak Prov, covering an area of more than 35ha, both hill itself and a combined copper and iron mine await exploration.

While, Cheb 001, dedicated solely to iron mining across its 6ha, hints at the potential significance of ironworking in the region’s history.

The fourth area, Trapeang Svay Toul, served as an iron mine covering over 10ha, and the fifth site, Phnom Chrab Pdao, spanning 8.5ha, was a significant copper mine and source of laterite stone. 

“Chheb district holds particularly unique heritage sites: not only mines but also the very locations where the Angkorian Empire first processed copper. This sets them apart from other ancient production sites,” the ministry said.

Southeast Asia boasts four major archaeological copper mines: Khao Wongprachan Valley in Lopburi province and Phu Lon Mountain in Nong Khai province, Thailand; Savannakhet province, Laos; and Chheb district in Preah Vihear province.

Kong Puthika, director-general of the National Authority for Preah Vihear (NAPV), said on February 19 that the study focused on Chheb as the district already boasts numerous remnants of iron mines and ancient workshops, suggesting a long history of metal production in the area.

“During the Angkorian period (802-1431 CE), iron, not steel, was the primary metal used in Cambodia. While its most visible application might be weaponry, archaeological evidence suggests it played various roles in construction, agriculture and daily life,” he said.

“In contrast, Europe in the 15th century saw a gradual increase in steel production, mainly for high-end weaponry and armour. Although steel would eventually become crucial for ships and large structures, its widespread use in construction wouldn’t occur until much later,” he noted.

Recently, an archaeological team led by the Preah Vihear provincial culture department, in collaboration with the EFEO and the culture ministry, conducted analysis on an iron smelting site in Trapeang Choan Sanlong in Krasaing village, Chheb Muy commune, Chheb district, Preah Vihear province, from February 10-11.

The ironworks, located near the border post of the Krasaing community forest, contains around 20 smelters and is considered one of the most important iron production workshops in Cambodia’s history, spanning from prehistoric times to the Angkorian period. It holds particular significance as the only known iron smelting site in the province to utilise copper ore.