In the Xiangkhoang Plateau in Laos, there are fields littered with thousands of giant stone jars, call the Plain of Jars. These odd stone vessels are unlike any others on earth and date back to the Iron Age, between 500 BC and 500 AD. It seems odd that fields of this southeast Asian country would have so many prehistoric relics, yet the jars remain a fixture of the landscape. Just what was the purpose of these enormous stone jars? What have archeologists learned about these strange artifacts? Let’s take a closer look at Laos’ Plain of Jars.
The giant jars dotting the Laos landscape are all carved out of stone found nearby. The all have roughly the same shape…a cylinder that is wider at the bottom and narrower at the top. Although the height of the jars varies, the diameter averages between 1 and 3 meters. Some of the larger stone jars weigh as much as 30 tons. Some of the jars have round, disc-like lids perched on top of them and others have lids located nearby.
Madeleine Colani, a French researcher started the first extensive study of the Plain of Jars by Europeans in the 1930s. She theorizes that the stone jars were used in prehistoric funeral and burial rituals, including cremation. Further research by Japanese archaeologists seems to support this idea, especially when human remains were discovered near the jars. Surrounding the Plain of Jars, explorers found carved stone circles that differ from the disc-like stone lids. They concluded that these circles were burial markers.
According to a Lao legend, a race of giants once lived in the region. Their king, Khun Cheung, engaged his troops is a long and hard-fought battle, and finally emerged victorious. To celebrate the victory, the king made a bunch of enormous stone jars to store large quantities of rice beer.
The story of a race of giants drinking rice beer from the massive stone jars is fun, but the local legend has another, more practical story regarding the Plain of Jars. The story states that the large stone jars were used to collect rainwater from the monsoons. The vessels then served as a reservoir of water for caravan travelers journeying through the area. During the off-season, water in some areas was scarce so large jars filled with rainwater would have been a welcomed sight for travelers. The travelers, the stories say, would boil the rainwater to make it safe to drink.
Two researchers, Richard Engelhardt and Peter Rogers, proposed in 2001 that the large jars were ‘distilling vessels’. The body of a dead person, usually a high-ranking individual or royal, was placed in the stone jar. The body was alternately buried and boiled in water to aid in the decomposition process. Upon completion, what was left of the body was buried. Although this sounds like a gruesome practice, the researched note that the Dravidians of South India had a similar practice. They used large burial urns called Mudhumakkal Thazhi, meaning ‘burial pots of the old people’. The deceased was placed in a sitting position inside the pot and surrounded by their personal belongings.
War swept through Laos in the sixties and seventies, halting all archaeological expeditions on the Plain of Jars. Many of the giant stone jars were destroyed or damaged in the fighting. Even after the war ended, unexploded bombs in the region made it unsafe for scientists to continue their work.
After several decades, the Plain of Jars was deemed safe for scientists again. Several academic, including Eiji Nitta and Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, picked up the study of the giant jars and their work seemed to confirm that the Plain of Jars was part of an elaborate ritualistic funeral practice. Despite their morbid purpose, the Plain of Jars is a unique archaeological site…the most important one in Southeast Asia, according to some…that needs to be protected from further destruction.