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Group 1, burial jars shrouded in mist at Site 52. Source: Australian National University / Fair Use.

Dead Baby Burial Vessels, Or Catchers Of The Rain? You Decide

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Hundreds more 1,100-year-old dead babies and infants have been unearthed in Laos, which a new paper says greatly expands archaeologists understanding of how ancient cultures lived and died, on Laos.

Southeastern Asia’s mysterious ‘ plain of jars’ or ‘jars of the dead’, situated near Ban Nahoung in Laos, encompasses thousands of square miles of the Xiengkhouang Plateau and these surreal and highly ritualized landscapes form one of archaeology’s most perplexing outstanding puzzles.

Jars of the Dead?

Local myths claim the jars were drinking goblets used by an ancient race of giants, but such mythological notions have been further displaced by a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne who excavated ‘Site 1’ and published their findings in the journal Antiquity. Attempting to unlock the secret of ‘what’ these jars were originally and what they were used for, their findings first lay out the dimensions of the mystery.

Misty day at Site 2 showing two sandstone megalithic jars. (Australian National University / Fair Use)

Misty day at Site 2 showing two sandstone megalithic jars. (Australian National University / Fair Use )

Measuring up to 10 feet (3 meters) high some of the cup-like carved stones weigh a whopping two tons, and some of them have been shaped to accept lids. Because the location hasn’t yielded any archaeological evidence of having been occupied, it is generally agreed that it was a vast funerary and ritual site . Supporting this idea, a report in Brinkwire discusses the French geologist Madeleine Colani’s excavation of “a cave at the site in the early 1930s” which revealed it was used as a form of crematorium.

New Baby Burial Vessels Found

Archaeologists Dougald O’Reilly and Nicholas Skopal, from the Australian National University, and colleagues announced on Facebook on May 15 that they had “catalogued 137 new jars across 15 freshly-identified sites – in the remote and mountainous forest” and that these determine burial practices associated with the jars “were more widespread than previously thought”.

This new research brings the total number of jars to over 400 which strongly suggests to the team of archaeologists that “there may be thousands more spread across the entire site”. This new dig has revealed 18 further human remains of which “more than 60 percent were infants or babies” and they also established that almost half of them “had died at the fetal stage or in early infancy”.

View from site 2 of the burial jars. (Australian National University / Fair Use)

View from site 2 of the burial jars. (Australian National University / Fair Use )

What Was Killing So Many Babies

Studies of  fetal remains told the scientists that four had “ dental enamel hypoplasia ” which is described in the paper as a tooth enamel defect that occurs in developing teeth, suggesting disease or famine “may have ravaged the area, experts suggest, in between the 10th and 13th centuries AD”.

Lead author Louise Shewan told IFL Science that “Site 1 contained three types of mortuary ritual practices: secondary burial of human bone, secondary burial of human remains in buried ceramic jars , and for the first time, a primary burial of two individuals”.

Most of the human deposits were made in the jars much later than they were created, with radiocarbon dating ranging from as far back “8,200 BC to 1,200 AD”. The scientists say very little is known about the culture that created the jars in the first place, but previous research has found glass beads , a pendant, ceramic vessels, and ear discs”. 

A section of the newly discovered jars had ‘beautifully-carved discs’ with geometrical images of concentric circles , human figures, and animals, all of which were discovered buried with their decorated sides positioned face-down, the paper claims they are probably burial markers .

Disc decorated with concentric rings at Site 2 discovered, the decoration was facing downward. (Australian National University / Fair Use)

Disc decorated with concentric rings at Site 2 discovered, the decoration was facing downward. (Australian National University / Fair Use )

Geological Origins Of The Burial Jars

The paper explains that the jars had been quarried from several sites in the Xiengkhouang foothills and transported to over 90 burial sites, some of which held hundreds of individual burial jars. The jars are shaped like giant Greek amphora (ancient storage jars) with necks narrower than their bodies and their bottoms wider than the tops. Most were found with ‘lip rims’ which indicated that the jars might have had lids, but only a handful of lids have been found at the sites.

UAV view of the excavations of the burial jars at Site 2. (Australian National University / Fair Use)

UAV view of the excavations of the burial jars at Site 2. (Australian National University / Fair Use )

So far as ‘how' these jars were crafted it is suspected by some archaeologists that iron chisels were applied to carve them into form. Some specialists, however, claim that the effort required to have made so many jars suggests an alternative purpose, and rather than having been used for burials, originally, they might have been designed to “capture monsoonal rainwater for later boiling and use by caravans passing through the region,” according to the paper. 

Top image: Group 1, burial jars shrouded in mist at Site 52. Source: Australian National University / Fair Use .

By Ashley Cowie

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