In the annals of “People Who Hauled Massive Stones,” the title usually goes to the Egyptians who built the pyramids, followed by the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge. Moving up fast to the #3 spot are a mysterious group of Laotians living 1,000 years ago who carved and then hauled massive multi-ton stone jars to fields and then filled them with the bodies of their dead. It’s no wonder they’re called the “Jars of the Dead” … but why are they so big and where did they come from?
“These new sites have really only been visited by the occasional tiger hunter. Now we’ve rediscovered them, we’re hoping to build a clear picture about this culture and how it disposed of its dead.”
PhD. student Nicholas Skopal was part of a team from the Australian National University (ANU) School of Archaeology and Anthropology that discovered 15 new sites in Laos containing 137 of these 1000-year-old stone cylinders that resemble giant jars or vessels. While there are other similar fields of stone jars in Laos, the results presented by the team reveal that this new discovery in a remote and different area means the practice was more widespread than first thought and covered a longer time period. According to the study “Megalithic Jar Sites Of Laos: A Comprehensive Overview And New Discoveries” published in 2018, a so-called Plain of Jars on the Xiangkhoang Plateau in northern Laos that is filled with various-sized Jars of the Dead became known to the outside world in the 19th century and was studied in great detail in the 1930s by French archeologist Madeleine Colani. She dated those in the Plain of Jars back to Laos’ Iron Age (500 BCE to 500 CE) and, while no remains were found, believed they were used for burials or temporary holding containers for future burials.
“It’s apparent the jars, some weighing several tonnes, were carved in quarries, and somehow transported, often several kilometres to their present locations. But why these sites were chosen as the final resting place for the jars is still a mystery. On top of that we’ve got no evidence of occupation in this region.”
According to ANU archaeologist Dr. Dougald O’Reilly who co-led the team that made the latest discovery, these new stones are more recent — dating back 1,000 years – and were discovered in a remote and heavily forested mountain area rather than on a plain. However, the fact that there was no evidence of people living in the area nor where they found the stone to quarry and carve nor how they hauled these stones up the mountain deepened their mystery rather than helped solve it.
Adding to the mystery is the additional discovery of stone discs decoratively carved with geometric figures, animals and human figures. It’s assumed that these are some sort of strange burial markers … strange because they were buried in the ground with the carved sides face down! (Photo here.)
Finally, this new site contains miniature stone jars identical to the large ones and O’Reilly hopes to someday determine why they were placed with the dead. It all adds up to … well, actually none of it adds up to anything. O’Reilly and his team plan to continue to search for more Jars of the Dead in Laos and look for a possible connection between them and other similar megalithic jars found in Assam in India and in Sulawesi in Indonesia.
The mysteries of these Jars of the Dead are … jarring.