Jars are the quintessential utilitarian workhorses – used for holding and storing things ever since humans realized they wanted to save something for later. Most often the thing was food and the jars were placed somewhere for safe storage, but some strange jars in Laos have mystified archeologists and historians because they were purposely placed outside on a plain and were used to store human remains. No, these were not food for cannibals, but the true purpose of these large jars on what is now called the Plain of Jars has been a mystery that just got more puzzling with the discovery that they’ve been sitting out on the plain for 2,000 years longer than previously thought. Will this new data help solve the secrets of the Plain of Jars?
“The megalithic jar sites of Laos comprise one to three-metre-tall carved stone jars dotted across the landscape, appearing alone or in groups of up to several hundred. The majority of these sites are found in Xieng Khouang Province, and while collectively termed the ‘Plain of Jars’, the sites are mostly located on mountain ridges, saddles or hill slopes surrounding the central plain and upland valleys.”
As explained in a new study published in the journal PLOS One, these are big jars (3 to 9 feet tall), there’s a lot of them and they’re not just found on a plain. Local indigenous people attribute them to a race of giants who celebrated war victories by brewing rice beer or wine in the giant jars. In 1935, French researcher Madeleine Colani found burial artifacts and human remains and speculated that the jars were used for prehistoric burials, but the bones could not be accurately dated. However, this type of ceremonial open-air jar burial was used in other locations and those dated to the 9-13th century CE, so the jars of the plain were assumed to be 700 to 1,200 years old.
"Directly under one jar, we had a date range of 1350 to 730 BCE, and under another we had 860 to 350 BCE. I think we're going to find a range of dates as we continue the analysis."
In an interview with Live Science, University of Melbourne archaeologist, expedition leader and study co-author Louise Shewan explains that her team went back to the Plain of Jars just before the coronavirus pandemic hit and were able to use optically stimulated luminescence -- not on the jars or remains but on the soil under them. This technique reveals the last time the dirt was exposed to light and the findings were astonishing – some of the jars had been in the same spot for close to 2400 years!
“Although the original purpose of the megalithic jars remains to be determined, the present research indicates a long history of activity at the sites. The evidence provided by OSL dating has provided the first ever dates for the original placement of the jars at Site 2–1240 BC to 660 BC. While the broad similarity in megalith morphology across Laos might suggest contemporaneity and the expression of a unique, yet to be identified, cultural group, more research needs to be conducted.”
Instead of offering a conclusion, the new discovery raises more questions. What culture first quarried them and hauled them to the area? What was their original purpose? When were they first used for funeral practices? Why did they reuse them? Did other cultures arrive, empty them of remains and take them over for the same purpose? Why did they stop using the jars? What about the giants and the rice beer?
It’s fortunate that the Plain of Jars survived through heavy bombing by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) between 1964 and 1969 as part of the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War. Unexploded bombs make the area dangerous even today. Yet many of the jars remained intact and standing … ready to mystify more archeologists.
You can’t beat a good jar.