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The Mysterious Plain of Jars

Scattered along a stretch of the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau, in the country of Laos, just about 400km northeast of the capital, Vientiane, are an array of clusters of what can only be described as enormous, stone jars or urns of some sort. The mysterious artifacts are sprawled out over several hundred square kilometers, and there are thousands of them, ranging in size from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 10 feet) high and all of them fashioned out of rock, probably quarried from the nearby foothills. Now ancient and encrusted with lichen, some of them show evidence of having once had lids of some sort, but not all, and for the most part they are undecorated and unadorned with any sort of carvings or markings, except for a single jar with a human figure etched into it for reasons unknown. Scattered around these monolithic jars have been found human bones, ancient artifacts, and odd stone discs just as inscrutable as the jars themselves. This is the enigmatic Plain of Jars, and it is a strange, almost magical place that has been baffling archeologists and visitors alike for hundreds of years.

These strange monuments have been here since at least the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500), shrouded in mystery and legend, and no one is really quite sure who made them or why, their history wreathed with myth and legend. The mythical origins of the mysterious jars are mentioned in the legends of the area’s people, where they are depicted as the creations of a race of giants said to have once inhabited the region. In these legends, the giant king, Khun Cheung had them made simply to hold alcohol in celebration of a victorious battle they had fought. After the giants left, they simply abandoned the jars, where they remained upon the plain to the elements.

The jars were first subjected to real archeological scrutiny in the 1930s by French researcher Madeleine Colani, who made the first actual scientific observations about the jars. She found that most of them were composed of sandstone, but that others were also made of granite or other materials, and she speculated that they were likely used for ancient funerary ceremonies, with the stone discs nearby perhaps grave markers, but this is unknown, and indeed the purpose of the jars has been a puzzle all the way up to the present. However, there were beads and the remains of human teeth found within the jars and around them to support this. Beads and pieces of pottery were also all around the jars, serving as strange clues that haven’t been totally understood. Later research done by other expeditions would find bones in the vicinity of the jars, supporting the idea that they were some sort of funeral device, with the beads offerings to the dead, and there has been found a cave in the region thought to have once been used as a crematorium, although locals believe that this was actually a huge kiln within which the jars were manufactured. In 1994, Japanese researcher Eiji Nitta would come to the conclusion that the jars were possibly there to serve as markers for burial sites, but as with everything else it is just a theory.

It is widely thought that the urns may have been used to house corpses early within the funeral rites, while they went through a period of transferring to the spiritual world. After this, the body would then be cremated, and a second burial would be carried out, although this is mostly speculation. Of course there have been other ideas as to what the jars might have been. One idea is that they were used for food storage, while another is that they may have been for collecting rainwater to be used as a water source for caravans passing through the region, with the beads found within possibly offerings of thanks or even utilized for praying for rain. This fits in with the fact that these clusters of jars seem to be similar to and in line with other clusters of unusual large ancient jars that stretch off all the way up into India and which lie along ancient trade routes. In the end, though, no one really knows for sure, and those jars still stand there as monuments of mystery.

It is unfortunate that in the 1960s and 70s there was a relentless bombing campaign carried out in Laos as part of the United States’ “Secret War” in the region, an attempt to staunch the spread of communism through Indochina while all eyes were on the more pressing Vietnam War. Laos became one of the most bombed countries ever, and this lush landscape was subjected to withering bombing runs that left behind a pockmarked, crater-filled wasteland behind. This was not good for anyone in the area, with whole towns erased from existence and tens of thousands killed, and is certainly wasn’t good for the jars either, with many of them destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

There was also left an estimated hundreds of thousands, by some counts millions, of unexploded cluster bombs buried within the earth here lying in wait for the unwary. Indeed, it is for this reason that many of the jar sites are closed to the public, and it is considered to be one of the most dangerous archeological sites in the world. It is estimated that around 50,000 innocent Laotians have been killed by this deadly unexploded ordnance since 1964, and the land is deemed to be mostly poisoned by the ever present specter of death in the form of these hidden bombs. Extensive clearance campaigns have helped to demarcate certain areas as safe, but the area in general is a lethal danger zone, which has further hindered studies of the jars. In addition to all of this, tourists themselves, who are limited to only a very few sites, are also known to cause damage to the jars. Human activity has done an amazing job of wiping out these jars, something that thousands of years couldn’t do, and making them inaccessible, and one wonders just how long these amazing historical oddities will be around to study.

In modern times these jars remain largely as mysterious as they always have been, and still manage to generate debate and discussion. For those wanting to see them for oneself, there are several sites open to the public for viewing, with clearly marked off areas that are free of unexploded bombs, but one cannot shake the feeling that lying mere meters away could be certain death. It adds a sad cast to this place, where these ancient peoples once went about their mysterious business of settng up these massive stone jars with no fear of bombs, and whose mysteries remain lost to time.