The Prehistory of Lao and the Amazing Stone Jars
The original inhabitants of the Plain of Jars were Austro-Asiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. Skilled at river navigation using canoes, traders used routes through the mountains, especially waterways, from earliest times. The most important river route was the Mekong because of its many tributaries, the chief northern tributary being the Nam (River) Ngum which originates in the hills north of the Plain. These water routes allowed traders to penetrate deep into the hinterland, where they bought products such as cardamom, gum, and many foods.
Not much is known about these bronze age peoples, but archeological sites such as the stone jars may hold the key to unlocking this chapter of the area's history. Because sites of funeral urns somewhat similar to those on the Plain of Jars are found in Cachar, Northern India, and in Sa Huynh, Vietnam, (as well as earlier prehistoric chamber graves in nearby Houaphan and Samneua provinces), it has been proposed that prehistoric salt traders had followed a caravan route from Vietnam all the way to India.
Such well-traveled caravan routes passing through Xieng Khouang continued to be used until the early part of the 20th century. Salt, available in the Laotian uplands, was probably the impetus for diverting the caravans to pass through the plateau, and it is still an important local resource for making fermented fish paste (pla ra), a dietary staple of the region. Salt may have provided the communities of the Plain of Jars with a stable resource base and the capital to procure exotic imported items such as cowry shells from the east and glass beads from the west.
Perhaps, the people who lived along this trade route shared a similar culture, burying their dead (cremated or not, depending upon local custom) in megalithic jars. Yet their origins and ethnicity are unclear, as well as their fate. What is certain is that the Plain of Jars is one of the most important sites for studying the late prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia, a time when advances in agricultural production, the manufacturing of metals, and the organization of long-distance overland trade were rapidly transforming local society.
The Stone Jars
The local inhabitants say that the jars were made for brewing alcohol, to be consumed at a great feast to celebrate an illustrious military victory thousands of years ago. Legend tells of an evil king, named Chao Angka, who oppressed his people so terribly that they appealed to a good king to the north, named Khun Jeuam, to liberate them. Khun Jeuam and his army came, and after waging a great battle on the plain, defeated Chao Angka.
Perhaps 2,000 years old, the relics are one of the oldest archeological wonders of Southeast Asia. They have survived looters, the elements, and American bombs, but for decades were largely forgotten in the chaos and conflict that swept Laos
In the 1930s, French archeologist Madeline Colani documented the jars in a 600-page monograph, The Megaliths of Upper Laos, She discovered some jars contained bronze and iron tools, and bracelets, along with cowry shells and glass beads, while the rest appeared to have been looted, and concluded that they were funeral urns carved by a vanished Bronze Age people. This theory has been strengthened by the more recent discovery of underground burial chambers.
A little more than a mile northeast of Ponsavan lies the principal jar site, called Ban Ang, known as Site 1, containing more than 250 urns. In her words "They are disposed without regularity, some of them pressing one against another, others quite isolated. Each one is fashioned from a separate block of stone, and a small number of them are very well executed, as though turned on a lathe, bespeaking the hand of a true artist." Here, there also is a cave, which she believed served as the crematorium, having found ashes and bones inside it.
A recent excavation in 1994, exposed a carving of a human figure on the side of the jar, the first anthropomorphic image recorded at the site. Nearby, eight to twelve inches below the soil surface, seven flat stones, each covering a pit were also discovered. Six of the pits contained human bones and the seventh contained a two-foot-tall burial jar with small pieces of bone and teeth inside.
These pits are proposed to be sites of secondary burials, a practice in which the corpse is left to decompose or 'distill' into it' sessence, a practice that has been common in Thailand and Laos (and other regions) up to the present (to dry out the body and rot the soft tissue before cremation). So the unifying theory is that, the corpses of poor people were placed in pits, while those of the nobility and rich people were placed in the urns to dry out. This would explain their large size. Once they had been cremated in the cave, the ashes of the elite were returned to the urns, or perhaps buried in a sacred place, freeing the jars for re-use to decompose another body.
To date, more than 60 jar fields have been identified, usually situated on promontories and other strategically high places. The tallest jars are more than 3 meters in height and over a meter in width, and weighing several tons. A few have carved symbols which are still visible. Circular stone discs found near the jars, presumed to be lids, are also sometimes carved, with one having a recognizable representation of a monkey. A distinctive figure inscribed on several of the funeral urns, known as the 'frogman', may link the civilisation to cultures as far afield as Yunnan and Indonesia
In morbid juxtaposition is the fact that death is also represented by the presence of thousands of tons of unexploded bombs, making the Plain of Jars the most dangerous and contaminated archeological site in the world. Un-detonated bombs, land mines and other unexploded military ordnance still contaminate more than 35% of the province's total land area and continue to threaten the lives of the 200,000 people who now live in Xieng Khouang. If you plan on visiting the area, keep in mind warnings about straying off the path, as doing so may result in tragedy.
In 1998 UNESCO and the Government of Lao PDR initiated a multi-year project to safeguard the archaeological resources of the Plain of Jars. The UNESCO-LAO Project to Safeguard the Plain of Jars is intended to remove the danger of unexploded ordnance, help to rehabilitate the plateau's agricultural land and identify priority areas for protection for archaeological research and tourism development.
There are many links on the web to the Jar sites, many of them archived stories from newspapers and magazines. Also there are some good photogalleries from private websites of photographers and travelers. Of course, you should check out our own photo gallery, to see some really good shots of these jars. Check it out - just a click away! To find other sites, just type in 'Plain of Jars' on your search engine. Here, I will only volunteer a few of the more authoritative:
This is the UNESCO Bangkok site, your first priority if you are interested in the Jars
- New paper on the subject of the Jars can be downloaded from this website by Lia Genovese, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, who as of 2013 is still conducting research and finding new sites.
- http://www.uiowa.edu/~bioanth/laoskeep.html Laos keeps it's urns -
Professor Russell Ciochon and Jamie James of the University of Iowa, USA
Around the World in 80 Clicks - some nice photos here