sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

Plain of Jars, Laos - Brunei Times

Published on The Brunei Times

Laos' mysterious plain of man-sized jars

Liz Price
Sunday, November 11, 2007

Asian menhirs: The largest and most accessible of the various Laotian jar sites is home to 250 jars that weigh mostly from 600kg to one tonne each. The biggest weighs six tonnes. Picture: Liz Price

THE Plain of Jars is one of the most enigmatic sites in Laos. It is a large area littered with huge stone jars. The jars are surrounded by mystery as no one knows their real history, although researchers and archaeologists have offered several hypotheses over the years.

The Plain of Jars covers a big area which extends around Phonsavan in northeast Laos, in Xieng Khuang province. It is divided into about 15 sites, although more than 60 sites have been recorded covering a much wider area extending to Thailand and India.

Some of the theories as to the purpose of the jars are that they were used as sarcophagi, or as wine fermenters or even for storing rice. But there is no evidence confirming one theory over another as the jars have been found empty. A few of the jars have discs lying nearby, which are thought to be lids.

The jars were carved out of solid stone boulders, some from granite, but most from a conglomerate which is similar to sandstone. Only recently researchers found the quarries (actually boulder fields) where they think the stone originated, as the site contains half finished jars. This place is west of Muang Sui.

The jars are angular or round and can weigh up to 13 metric tonnes and range from one to three metres in height. They are thought to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Some of the excavated material has been dated to around 500 BC - 800 CE.

After studies in the 1930's found that the artifacts included bones, beads, bronze and iron tools, it was thought that the jars were funerary urns. Vases found lying next to some of the jars may have held human remains. Aerial photos show the jars appear to be laid in a linear path that was probably a trade route. This leads to the theory the jars were used to store rainwater to supply travellers.

Of course there are local legends associated with the jars. It is said that a race of giants once inhabited the area. Legend tells of an ancient king who fought a long, victorious battle against his enemy. He supposedly created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao rice wine to celebrate his victory. Another story says that in the 6th century a cruel chieftain, Chao Angka, ruled the area. However the Lao-Thai hero Khun Jeuam supposedly came down from southern China to help the people, and deposed Angka. To celebrate his victory, Khun Jeuam had the jars constructed for the fermentation of rice wine. According to this version, the jars were cast from a type of cement that was made from buffalo skin, sand, water and sugar cane, and fired in a nearby cave kiln, Grotte Crematoire.

Grotte Crematoire is a small cave 23m long, consisting of a single chamber with natural holes in the top. Due to the evidence of smoke it was thought the cave may have been a crematorium and maybe the jars were used to deposit cremated human remains. The cave was found to contain human remains and also burned bones and ash, as well as unburned bones.

The Pathet Lao or Lao revolutionary movement used this cave during the 1960's war as a shelter, and an American bomb supposedly damaged the cave. You can still see trenches and bomb craters in the surrounding area. The town of Xieng Khouang was destroyed during the fighting between the Pathet Lao and American-backed anti-communist troops. A new town was built in the mid 1970s, known as Phonsavan.

Not all the sites have been fully excavated and researchers are always hoping to find sealed jars whose contents might still be intact. But the dangers of unexploded ordnance (UXO) have slowed progress over the years. Only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are considered relatively free of UXO and therefore open to visitors. Even at those sites you should stick to the worn footpaths and take note of the stone markers left by the UXO teams. UXO are explosive weapons (bombs, shells, grenades, etc.) that did not explode when they were employed, and still pose a risk of detonation, decades after they were used. Laos has the distinction of being one of the world's most heavily bombed nations. During the period of the American Vietnam War, over half-a-million bombing missions dropped more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance on Laos.

Site One is the largest of the various sites and the most accessible. It is home to 250 jars that weigh mostly from 600kg to one tonne each. The biggest weighs six tonnes. Some people say this was the victory cup of the mythical King Jeuam, so it's called Hai Jeuam. Near Site One is the Lao air force base.

Two other jar sites, Two and Three, are also easily accessible by road from Phonsavan. Site Two features 90 jars scattered across two adjacent hillsides. Site Three is more interesting, it has 150 jars on a scenic hilltop. It lies 10km further south from Site Two, and 35km from Phonsavan. To reach the site you have to hike for about two kilometres along rice paddies and then up the hill. In the nearby village of Ban Sieng Di is a small monastery with remains of Buddha images that were damaged during the war. The villagers live in unusually large houses and grow rice, sugar cane, avocado and bananas.

It is possible the jars are linked with the equally mysterious stone megaliths (menhirs) found off Route Six on the way north, 57km before Sam Neua in Houa Phan province. This is Hintang archaeological park with its 2,000-year-old standing stones. The jars could also be linked to the large Dongson drum-shaped stone objects discovered in Luang Prabang province.

It will be interesting to see if archaeologists will ever discover the real truth behind the Plain of Jars.

The Brunei Times


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