Researchers Renew Efforts to Solve the Puzzling Plain of Jars Site
Although there is still a long way to go, researchers have found new information on the mysterious Plain of Jars site located in the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang. Human remains dating to the Iron Age, between 2500-3000 years ago, have been unearthed. These and other artifacts are beginning to shed new light on ancient mortuary practices at the site.
Archaeology reports that there were three types of burials found during the excavations. Some individuals were buried whole, other burials were bundled bones, and still more were bones found placed in ceramic vessels. According to Shanghai Daily, the remains were spread out as well, with the first two individuals found 70 cm (27.6 inches) underground and a third discovered about 13 meters (42.7 feet) away.
“With our research, because we’ve been able to uncover a fair amount of human bone—we’ve got seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic jars—so a total of 11 mortuary contexts. We’re hoping we’ll be able to get some really good information about the people,” said Dougald O’Reilly of Australian National University.
One of the burials at the Plain of Jars site. (Louise Shewan, Monash University)
Speaking to Xinhua, O'Reilly said:
“Our research, while in preliminary stages, has revealed a wide range of mortuary practices. Such diversity of practice in disposal of the dead is uncommon in one culture... there may be several explanations for this diversity and we hope to establish why this is the case. It is hoped that the knowledge gained from our research will be of assistance in seeing these sites nominated as UNESCO World Heritage."
The researchers also speculate that the Plain of Jars sites may be linked with similar sites in India’s northeast region of Assam.
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The project is entitled Unravelling the Mysteries of the Plain of Jars, Lao PDR. It is a five-year research endeavor that is funded by the Australian Research Council and is a joint project being led by the Australian National University’s O’Reilly in cooperation with Monash University archaeologist Louise Shewan, and the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, represented by Archaeology Division Director Dr. Thonglith Luangkhoth.
The team used Ground Penetrating Radar to guide the excavation before digging up the remains. Isotopic and chemical analysis are planned for the bones, with hopes that the tests will provide information on the ethnicity of the people linked to the site.
Plain of Jars with Hmong Girls - site 1. (Oliver Spalt/ CC BY SA 2.5)
As Ancient Origins writer April Holloway wrote:
“Little is known of the people who carved the huge containers and the jars themselves give little clue as to their origins or purpose. According to local legend, the jars were created by a race of giants, whose king needed somewhere to store his rice wine. The wine was to be consumed at a great feast to celebrate an illustrious military victory thousands of years ago. Legend tells of an evil king, named Chao Angka, who oppressed his people so terribly that they appealed to a good king to the north, named Khun Jeuam, to liberate them. Khun Jeuam and his army came, and after waging a great battle on the plain, defeated Chao Angka.”
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The Plain of Jars is composed of at least 3,000 massive stone jars that measure up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall and weigh several tons. Most are made of sandstone but there are others of much harder granite and limestone. As the jars have lip rims, it is thought that they were originally covered with lids. Past excavations have found a few stone lids to support this, although it is more likely that the main material for the lids would have been wood or ratan.
The latest field work uncovered an ancient burial ground in a region that is known as Site 1, with more than 300 stone jars, stone discs, and markers. O’Reilly said: “This is one of the great enigmas of the Jars’ sites. These massive stone jars – some of them weighing up to 10 metric tons, that have been dragged eight to 10 kilometers from a quarry site and set up in groups.”
Plain of Jars, Site One. (Public Domain)
Even though the Plain of jars has been acknowledged as “one of South East Asia’s most important archaeological sites and probably one of the [region’s] least understood archaeological sites,” it is also known as one of the most dangerous. Work in Laos has been complicated by the geography, climate and the threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO) - tennis ball-sized cluster munitions that could explode if disturbed. The archaeological dig and the Jar Site 1 were previously cleared with the assistance of the Mine Action Group (MAG).
Field work will continue over the years in more remote regions of Laos and sites in northeastern India in collaboration with Indian archaeologists.
Featured Image: Burial jars at the Plain of Jars site. Source: Thonglith Luangkhoth