Thousands of enormous stone jars, arranged in clusters, scattered higgledy-piggledy throughout the grassy, undulating hills of the Xieng Khouang Plateau: that’s the Plain of Jars archaeological site in northern Laos.
Who made them? No one knows.
Why are they here? There are a few theories, but no one knows for sure.
When were they made? Best guess is somewhere between 500 BCE and 200 CE.
A French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani, investigated the site in the 1930s. She found bone fragments within some of the jars and came to the conclusion that they were used, somehow, in funerary practices.
Another theory suggests that the jars might have been rain-catchers, and that passing caravans relied upon this water source during the height of the dry season.
On the other hand a local legend says it was a race of giants who created the jars, and that it wasn’t water they stored but lao lao (rice wine).
The jars are of all different sizes and shapes. All are unadorned, except for a single vessel at Site 1 that features an engraving of a frogman.
A comparison has been drawn between this frogman engraving and the frogmen paintings seen in the Zuojiang Huashan rock art site in southern China. The Huashan frogmen are also thought to date to 500 BCE to 200 CE.
Are they linked? Good question.
No one knows.
A number of large circular discs have been found amongst the jars. Some of these discs are thought to have been lids, and others grave markers.
There is a reasonable chance that all of the jars once had lids, as each is fitted with a lid rim. The few lids that remain are all made of stone. The others, if there were others, might have been made of perishable materials such as timber or bark.
It’s interesting to note that royal families in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos place the bodies of their dead kin inside special funerary vessels, not unlike a giant jar, for a period of time following their death. This gives the souls of the departed the time they need to decouple themselves from the physical world before making their way into the spiritual realm.
Could this be a continuation of a custom practised at the Plain of Jars site?
No one knows.
Why don’t we know more?
Because archaeological investigations at the Plain of Jars have been hampered by the threat of unexploded ordinance. The USA dropped 262 million bombs on Laos during the Secret War of 1962 – 1973 (Laos went through a long, convoluted civil war in the mid 20th Century; the USA’s involvement has been labelled the Secret War as American officials denied it was happening at the time). A third of these bombs are thought to have failed to explode on impact.
The Plain of Jars site in particular was extensively bombed. Craters can still be seen across the site today. Bomb shrapnel and bomb cases remain a common sight in this part of Laos (some local farmers have even taken to using spent bomb cases as fence posts).
Two bomb clearing programs have been undertaken to date at the Plain of Jars sites; the first in 2004-2005, the second in 2007.
I visited in 2003, before any bombs had been cleared. It was still possible to make your way around the sites, but you had to stick to just one or two paths, and a few cleared patches. I imagine the site is considerably more accessible today.
The Laotian government has applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for the Plain of Jars archaeological site, and I for one sincerely hope they get their listing.
The Plain of Jars is an amazing, unique, and culturally significant site. Gaining UNESCO World Heritage status will help raise awareness of the site, which may lead to additional bomb clearing programs, which in turn may facilitate additional archaeological investigations.
And if all this were to happen then we might finally obtain a few of the answers we seek, such as who made the jars, when were they made, and why?
The best way to access the Plain of Jars sites is to base yourself in the bucolic town of Phonsovan. It’s about a 6 – 8 hour bus ride to Phonsovan from both Luang Prubang and Vang Vieng.