(Note: the stone jars in the photo above are from Laos, not the ones described in this article.)
Have you ever gone digging deep inside your pantry, found an empty jar and wondered what had been in it and why you saved it? Now, imagine being an archeologist investigating an unexplored area and finding giant stone jars – dozens of them – with no contents and no indications as to who left them or why. That’s the case in four different locations in Assam, India, where 65 giant sandstone jars are waiting to be explained. Old jelly jars?
"At the start the team just went in to survey three large sites that hadn't been formally surveyed. From there grids were set up to explore the surrounding densely forested regions. This is when we first started finding new jar sites.”
Nicholas Skopal, a PhD student at the Australian National University (ANU), tells in a press release how he and his fellow archeologists had one of those “look what we found while doing something else” moments in 2020 while in Assam, India, to survey new areas for future organized searches. The surveyors found four sites with mysterious sandstone jars of varying sizes (tall and short), shapes (cylindrical and round) and decorations, with some partly exposed and the rest buried underground. (Photo here.)
Skopal refers to “new jar sites” because, while never found in this area, fields of giant jars have previously been found in Laos and Indonesia. Those jars are so big that indigenous peoples thought they belonged to giants but research showed them to be giant funeral containers dating back to 1350 BCE – making them much older than first thought. Are the smaller jars in India also for burials?
"We still don't know who made the giant jars or where they lived. It's all a bit of a mystery. There are stories from the Naga people, the current ethnic groups in north-east India, of finding the Assam jars filled with cremated remains, beads and other material artefacts."
The modern-day Nagas are actually an amalgamation of ethnic groups native to northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar with a variety of cultures, traditions and languages. However, while they were aware of the giant jars – and appear to have removed the contents, making the job of the archeologists difficult – none of them are of the ancient ethnic group which first placed them there. That gives PhD students like Skopal something to research … and protect.
"The longer we take to find them, the greater chance that they will be destroyed, as more crops are planted in these areas and the forests are cut down."
The research was published in the Journal of Asian Archeology and team leader Dr. Tilok Thakuria, from North-Eastern Hill University, told the BBC that there are now 10 known sites containing more than 700 jars dating back to at least 400 BCE in Assam so far. Because the surveying has just begun and has only covered a small area so far, he believes there "are likely to be a lot more [such sites] out there. We just don't yet know where they are." Skopal says they also have no idea what they may have been used for … yet.
"The size and structure of the jars found in Assam and Laos are very similar. There's some variation in shape and size though. The ones in Assam are more bulbous, whereas the ones in Laos are more cylindrical."
As grisly as it sounds, finding some remains in a few would answer that question.
That’s far worse than finding a dead spider or mouse in one of your old jars, isn’t it?