Laos’ Mysterious Plain of Jars

Thousands of urns lie everywhere you look, scattered over the landscape of Xiangkhoang Plateau in Laos. Some are small, some large – much too large to have been cooked in, or had food stored in them! So what in the world could have been their purpose? Archaeologists have been working on this mystery for some time now, and they think they have the answers.

Studies in the 1930s suggested that these urns had something to do with burial sites, and research since then seems to confirm this. Formed in the Iron Age, they are an incredible example of what was being done with iron tools at the time.

Ninety burial sites have been found containing anywhere between 1 and 400 urns. (Only three are open for visitors, though, as there is a serious issue with unexploded land mines.) Stone disks were found that marked a grave, and a number of other graves were discovered near one of the jars.

At the first of the sites, there is a limestone cave with a front opening but then two man-made holes on top. In the 30s, items were found that would have belonged to a crematorium style cave. Burial items were found in and around the urns – beads, teeth, ceramic weights and charcoal. Yet within the jars were signs of cremated material, while outside there seemed to have been ‘secondary burials’ which did not involve cremation.

The different evidence of both cremation and burial was also found in 1994 when further exploration was done. Scientists aren’t sure why some bodies were cremated and others buried, but a group of people, the Black Tais, have inhabited the area since the 11th century and have traditionally cremated their elite and buried their common folk. This could be an example of that thinking.

A couple of local myths have grown up around the jars as well. One is that a giant won a great victory and had them made to brew oodles of rice wine. In fact locals think the cave was a kiln and that the jars aren’t made of stone but clay fired in this giant oven.

The second legend is that the jars was used to collect monsoon rain for the travelers who might run out of water during drought conditions, even if they had to reboil it because of algae and so forth growing in it.

Whatever the truth of these magnificent jars, they are an incredible insight into the people of the Iron Age and some of their cultural practices. As landmine removal takes place, researchers will be able to gain more information from the other sites that are too dangerous to work in right now.

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