Forensic Exhibition:





(Youk Chhang)



The Skulls

The ten skulls photographed for this exhibit come from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. They were originally excavated from Choeung Ek (the “killing fields” south of Phnom Penh where Tuol Sleng prisoners were executed) and other parts of Cambodia. This exhibit seeks to demonstrate the value of forensic evidence in documenting the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity. It is also intended to educate the public about the types of information that can be scientifically gathered from victims’ remains in order to prove and record evidence of murder/genocide.



Forensic Evidence

Forensic teams from the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) provided a large number of skulls to a team of Canadian forensic specialists. The specialists chose ten for analysis. The skulls were selected based on their condition, level of preservation, and wound types; they were not selected randomly. Thus, one cannot infer that because one of the ten skulls is from a female that 10% of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were women, or that because four of them exhibit gunshot wounds that 40% of the victims were shot.


The specialists found three types of trauma to the skulls, which caused or contributed to the death of each individual: 

  • Blunt-force trauma (from such implements as a gun butt, hammer, mallet, or log): 2 skulls

  • Sharp-force trauma (from a cutting implement such as a machete, knife, hoe, ax, or hatchet): 4 skulls

  • Gunshot wounds: 4 skulls.


Cranium of a man, 25 to 45 years old Cranium of a man, 30 to 55 years old Cranium of a man, 20 to 40 years old
Cranium of a man, 20 to 40 years old Cranium of a man, 30 to 50 years old Cranium of a man, 30 to 50 years old
Cranium of a man, 25 to 45 years old Cranium of a man, 25 to 45 years old Cranium of a man, 20 to 40 years old
Cranium of a woman, 35 to 50 years old

About this Exhibit

Originally, DC-Cam wished to display the skulls for public viewing. However, there is controversy in Cambodian society over whether this is appropriate. Some Cambodians are uncomfortable with the idea of boxing human remains. Although the spirit no longer lives in the bones, people feel the bones should not be sealed so the spirit can access them. Ideally, families should cremate the remains of the dead and store the ashes in a stupa to liberate the victims’ souls for reincarnation. His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk has expressed his discomfort with the idea of displaying the skulls.


DC-Cam, like the majority of Cambodians, believes the bones have a more important function in our society: they are a reminder for future generations of our country’s suffering and devastation, and will also serve as evidence of the crimes committed during the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea regime. But out of respect for the King’s wishes not to have the skulls displayed, we have housed them in a separate room at Tuol Sleng, which is open only to officials (e.g., prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal). Their final disposition will be determined once the tribunal is over.


The skulls rest on identical pedestals built from slightly overlapping wooden slats. Spaces have been left between slats so that air can reach the skulls, thus allowing the spirits to come and go as they wish. To protect the skulls, we have placed them in clear, five-sided Plexiglas cases secured with soft silicone caulk. The cases can be removed by cutting the caulk with a razor blade, allowing the skulls to be cleaned or moved.



Documentation Center of Cambodia

Forensic Study, 2004


Funded by US Department of State

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL)

through USAID, Phnom Penh