The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars located in Laos is a strange place to behold. This grassy, hilly area features thousands of prehistoric stone vessels that reach for hundreds of miles. Some of the biggest of these jars reach up to ten feet tall and weigh in at a whopping several tons. But what was the purpose of this prehistoric display that likely took an immeasurable amount of human effort and time?

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Most of these giant jars are, as expected, empty. Some believe they were pillaged hundreds or even thousands of years ago...and others have a different theory. One of the local legends of the area is that these jars were not jars at all...but cups. These huge, to humans, containers were used by giants. Others believed that the jars were used in funerary rites to enhance decomposition or as tombs. Researchers often refer to the jars as ‘jars of the dead.’

And, there is some evidence for this moniker. Although not present in every single jar, there were several human remains, dated at about 2,500 years old, that have been found in and by some of the larger jars.

Although the site has been well known for almost a hundred years globally, and much longer locally, it has been hard to discover a lot of new information because the plain contains many unexploded bomb parts from Vietnam. However, researchers are slowly but surely making their way back to this confounding archaeological site.

The jars are not the only prehistoric vestiges in the area. Around them it is very common to find tools, decorative ceramics, glass beads, spindles, and even jewelry! According to ScienceAlert, a team of researchers in 2016 also discovered “a collection of beautifully carved discs, which they think are burial markers, although strangely enough they were found buried with the intricate side face down.” Furthermore, "Curiously we also found many miniature jars, which look just like the giant jars themselves but made of clay," says one of the team, archaeologist Dougald O'Reilly.

If not tombs, the jars may have also been used as an important step in the funerary process. LiveScience reports that, “archaeologists think that at least some of the carved stone jars were used to hold dead bodies for a time, before their bones would be cleaned and buried...Although the remains of elaborate human burials have been found at some of the jar sites, archaeologists aren't sure if the jars were made for the purpose of the burials or if the burials were performed later.”

Furthermore, expeditions in the past ten years have revealed that some of the stone jars were surrounded by pits filled with human bones that were covered by large, carved stone discs as a sort of marker.

Today, the Plain of Jars is being considered a tentative addition to the World Heritage List. However, the region is still pocked with unexploded landmines, bombs, and other weapons. In fact, it is one of the most heavily bombed places on the planet...which makes discovery and research difficult. In 2019, a new team of researchers will use the data and photographs collected at the newly discovered jar sites to create a virtual reality experience at Monash University. Then, archaeologists around the world can use this VR to safely examine this fascinating site.

The above image is by Jakub Halun, entitled Równina Dzbanów - obszar archeologiczny numer 1, English: Plain of Jars - archaeological site number 1 taken in 2017. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.