UNVEIL THE MYSTERY OF THE PLAIN OF JARS IN LAOS (part 1).

UNVEIL THE MYSTERY OF THE PLAIN OF JARS IN LAOS.

(Part 1)

Nguyễn Xuân Quang

The Plain of Jars (Lao: Thồng Háy Hín)) is a megalithic archaeological wonder. It is situated at Xieng Khoang province, Laos PDR. The Xieng Khouang Plateau is located at the northern end of the Trường Sơn range (Annamese Cordillera), the principal mountain range separating Laos and Vietnam.

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Location of Plain of Jars and Xieng Khouang plain (blue shading).

The Plain of Jars is one of the most fascinating and important sites for studying Southeast Asian prehistory.

The over 2,000 gigantic jars scattered across the highlands of northeastern Laos have baffled archeologists for decades. More than 90 sites are known within the province of Xieng Khouang. Each site ranges from 1 up to 400 stone jars.

The Plain of Jars is a very dangerous archeological site due to millions of unexploded ordinances or UXO buried in these hills. Xieng Khouang, where the jars are found, is the second most heavily bombed province in Laos after Savannakhet in the south.

The Different Jar Sites

Seven jar sites have been cleared of UXO and are open to visitors. The most investigated and visited jar site is located close to the town of Phonsavan, capital of Xieng Khouang province and is known as Site 1 Bản Ang. Site 1, 2 and 3, and Site 16 are near the Old Capital Xieng Khouang. Site 23 is near the big hot spring in Muong Kham. Site 25 is in the largely unvisited Muang Phukoot district and Site 52, the largest known jar site to date with 392 jars is near a traditional Hmong village and only accessible by foot.

We visited the Jar site 1 Bản Ang with 331 jars. It is located on a wind-swept plateau encircled by mountains.

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The clusters of gigantic stone jars, site 1 (Photos by author).

At Site 1 evidence of the war can be seen in the form of broken or displaced jars, war trench systems used by Pathet Laos, North Vietnamese Army and even bomb craters

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A bomb crater among the jars (Photo by author).

Description of the jars

These stone jars appear in clusters, ranging from a single or a few to several hundred jars at lower foothills surrounding the central plain and upland valleys. The jars vary in height and diameter, between 1 and 3 meters tall and up to 13 tons. These jars have different shapes. Their apertures also vary in shapes: circular, rectangular, square…

Many of them fell down, were broken or displaced by the bombing during the Vietnam War.

Each jar is uniquely made.

The lids

From the fact that most of the jars have lip rims, it is presumed that all stone jars perhaps at one time had circular lids, however few stone lids have been recorded. This may suggest that the bulk of lids were made from perishable materials, were still buried in the ground, have been removed and used for other purposes or perhaps sold to tourists by local villagers.

Some stone lids have been found with concentric circles decorating on the top. Some other stone lids with animal representations have been noticed at few sites such as Ban Phakeo (Site 52). The bas-relief animals are thought to be monkeys, tigers and frogs. No in situ lid has ever been found.

At site 1, there is only one jar with a lid placed on its top.

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An ‘unfit’ lid was placed on a jar.

But this lid is too big for the jar and the color is also different. It does not fit this jar and seems to belong to a bigger jar located some where else on the higher parts of the plain. The lid must have fallen off and displaced to the area closed to this small jar and then was placed on top of this small jar .

Carving on the jar.

The stone jars are undecorated with the exception of one single jar at Site 1. This jar has a human bas-relief with arms raised carved on the exterior. This carving is called ‘frogman’ by some authors .

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A human bas-relief on a jar.

Graffiti on the jar

At site 1, there is one jar with letters carved on the exterior.

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A graffiti on a stone jar (Photo by author).

These letters are Roman alphabets: DIT M? In Southeast Asia, only Vietnamese people use the Roman alphabets for writing. The letter D must be Đ in Vietnamese alphabets. The horizontal bar of the Đ is hardly seen now. So, the word DIT must be ĐIT meaning FUCK, a term used by the North Vietnamese people (term Đụ is used in the South). Last letter probably is M which can be interpreted in two ways. In the first case, the man who wrote these letters had intentionally written only the letter M. If so, the letter M in Vietnamese language is pronounced ‘Em’ meaning ‘young sister’, ‘young girl’, ‘young female lover’, ‘baby’. The carved word “ ĐIT M” then means FUCK BABY. M could also be considered as an abbreviation of MẸ meaning MOTHER. ĐIT M then means FUCK (your) MOTHER.

The deeply carved last part of letter M may portray the letter I superimposed on the letter M. In this case, MI means ‘YOU’: ĐIT MI means FUCK YOU. Furthermore, if the letter I is pronounced with an accent ( ̃), then it can become MĨ means Americans. ĐỊT MĨ means FUCK AMERICANS.

It may also be that the man who wrote these letters didn’t have time to finish the whole word because he was in hurry due to some urgent reasons such as the alarm of air strike. He might have wanted to write two words ĐỊT MẸ meaning ‘FUCK MOTHER’ but only finished ĐỊT M. More dramatically he could have been killed on the spot before finishing the whole word.

For reasons explained above, these carved words are most likely graffiti written by a North Vietnamese soldier.

Quarries

Several quarry sites have been recorded. They are usually close to the jar sites. Five rock types are known: sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia.

The majority of the jars are made of sandstone. It is assumed that Plain of Jars’ people used iron chisels to manufacture the jars although no conclusive evidence for this fact exists.

I did not have the chance to visit a quarry, because, according to the guide, these quarries are still considered dangerous sites. He stated that in the quarry, there are still a few unfinished jars.

How could the makers move the jars from the quarries to the different sites? They might have used the same technique as the builders of megaliths or pyramids did in the past.

At site 1, there are many jars cleaved into 3 to 4 almost equally pieces due to the vibration of the bomb explosions.

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A stone jar was cleaved into almost three equal parts due to bomb explosions (Photo by author).

This suggests that some jars might be made by joining several separated pieces for the ease to carry them to the site. Then they were glued together to make a jar right on site.

Legends and local history

Lao stories and legends had it that there was once a race of giants who inhabited the area. Local legend (Hmong and Yao) told of an ancient king called Khun Cheung who fought a long, eventually victorious battle against his enemy. He allegedly had the jars make to brew and store huge amounts of Laotian rice wine to celebrate his victory. Another legend suggested that the jars were used to collect monsoon rainwater for caravan travelers…

Scholars’ opinions up until now.

Based on C14* analyses, the jars dated back to the Early Iron Age (500BCE-200CE). Some authors estimated that the age of these jars is around 2500 to 3000 years old.

But who made these jars? So far, nobody can confirm who made these enigmatic jars or its purpose.

French archaeologists

. French archaeologist Henri Parmentier first noticed the jars after he inquired about some glass and carnelian beads that were being sold and traded among the local tribes. The beads were apparently being pilfered from the jars along with other artifacts. This caused Parmentier to suspect that the jars, or urns, were actually tombs where bodies were placed with offerings. He documented a typical burial assortments containing two black cooking pots, a couple of hand axes, an oil lamp, and the beads (The Stone Jars of Laos http://www.viewzone.com/granitepots.html).

. French archeologist Madeleine Colani surveyed and recorded her findings on the Plain of Jars in the 1930s. At Site 1, called Ban Ang, with 331 jars, Colani discovered in the jars, embedded in black organic soil, colored glass beads, burnt teeth and bone fragments, sometimes from more than one individual. Around the stone jars, she found human bones, pottery fragments, iron and bronze objects, glass and stone beads, ceramic weights and charcoal. The bones and teeth inside the stone jars show signs of cremation, while the burials surrounding the jars yield unburned secondary burial bones.

Colani recorded and excavated at twelve Plain of Jars sites and published two volumes Mégalithes du Haut-Laos (“The Megaliths of Upper Laos”) with her findings in 1930.

At Site 1, there is a natural limestone cave with two man-made holes at the top of the cave. These holes are interpreted as chimneys of the crematorium. Madeleine Colani excavated inside the cave in the early 1930 and found archaeological material to support a centralized crematorium theory.

The material findings and context led her to the interpretation of the Plain of Jars as an Iron Age burial site.

Colani interpreted her findings on the sites as a prehistoric crematorium. She also connected the location of the jars sites to ancient trade routes and in particular with the salt trade. She pointed out urns with human remains found buried along the shores in Sa Huynh, south of Da Nang city, Vietnam. All three sites from India to Laos to Vietnam lie along a linear path, which she believed had been a caravan route followed by prehistoric salt traders from India.

If our interpretation is correct, we are in the presence of three links from the same chain: the ancient monoliths of Cachar, the stone jars of Xieng Khouang and the necropolis of Sa Huynh,” she wrote.

The route would have passed through Xieng Khouang for salt.

Eiji Nitta and Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy

Later research conducted by Lao’s Museums and Archaeology Department director-general Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy and Japanese researcher Eiji Nitta in the 1990s supported the theory of the jar fields as cemeteries and the jars as mortuary vessels. Their excavations revealed in-ground burial in the fields near the jars. However, none of the excavated bones showed signs of cremation.

It led to a working hypothesis that the jars had functioned as ritual urns for dead bodies to decompose and reduced, or distilled, to its essence.

He dates the Plain of Jars to the late first or early second millennium B.C. based on the burial urn and associated grave goods.

Sayavongkhamdy‘s surveys and excavations between 1994 and 1996 were supported by the Australian National University. Sayavongkhamdy and Bellwood interpreted a stone jar as a central single person’s primary or secondary burial surrounded by secondary burials of family members.

Julie Van Den Bergh

Archaeological data collected during UXO clearance operations supervised by UNESCO archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh during 2004-2005 and again in 2007 provided similar archaeological material results. Van Den Bergh claimed that initially, the stone jars may have been used to distill the dead bodies. The cremated remains within the stone jars represent the latest phase in the Plain of Jars. The stone jars with smaller aperture may reflect the diminishing need to place an entire body inside.

The macabre ritual is not foreign for South-East Asian nobility even until today, explains Van Den Bergh.

It is a continuing traditional practice where large, elaborate ritual urns are still used to contain the corpses of deceased Cambodian, Thai and Laotian royalty during the early stages of funeral rites when the dead is undergoing gradual transformation from the earthly to the spiritual world,” she says.

The corpse is placed in a fetal position in a large, porous or vented jar-like container and kept until it decomposes. The remains are then cremated. After that, the ash and unburned bones are buried along with religious tokens or symbolic artifacts in a sacred location.

The ancestral spirits will continue to guard the community. The urn or jar is then kept for re-use when the next family, clan or community member dies,” says Van Den Bergh.

The Plain of Jars may be the earliest site at which all the elements of what later became recognisable as traditional South-East Asian mortuary behavior was practiced as an ensemble.”

The theory that these jars are indeed vessels for the ancient dead is further supported by other similar archeological sites of funeral urns discovered in the Cachar Hills in northern India’s Assam district. These urns have similar design as the urns in Laos.

R. Engelhardt and P. Rogers

The suggestion that stone jars functioned as ‘distilling vessels’ in a similar fashion as traditional Southeast Asian Royal mortuary practices was put forward by R. Engelhardt and P. Rogers in 2001. In contemporary funerary practices connected to Thai, Cambodian and Laotian royalty the corpse of the deceased during the early stages of the funeral rites is placed into an urn, while the deceased is undergoing gradual transformation from the earthly to the spiritual world. The ritual decomposition is followed by cremation and secondary burial.

J.P. Mills and J.H. Hutton

English scholars J.P. Mills and J.H. Hutton discovered these urns in 1928 where they found human remains inside and noted that cremation was still practiced by the Kuki, a group of people who had inhabited the hills in Northeast India and Northwest Myanmar since the 16th century.

(to be continued).

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