Category Archives: LAOS

Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery

Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery

The eerie ‘Plain of Jars’ in Laos maybe thousands of years older than previously thought, and have been in use for even longer. Limestone vessels dotting the landscape of northern Laos were placed there up to 3,300 years ago, according to an analysis of quartz crystals in the sediment underneath them.

However, the majority of the fossils discovered in the area were buried between 700 and 1,200 years ago. According to the researchers, this indicates that the jars had ‘enduring ceremonial significance.’ ‘They were important for a very long time.’

They believe the containers were used to expose dead bodies to the elements until only the bones remained, which were then buried nearby.  Mysterious stone jars are spread across thousands of square miles of northern Laos’ Xiangkhouang plateau, commonly known as the ‘Plain of Jars.’

Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery
Mysterious stone jars spread across northern Laos’ Xiangkhouang plateau have given the region the nickname ‘Plain of Jars.’ New analysis of the jars suggest they are centuries older than previously believed

The massive vessels are made of sandstone and limestone and vary in size, reaching up to 10 feet tall and weighing two tons.

While local legends claim they were goblets used by a horde of drunken giants, the scientific consensus is that the region was a sprawling cemetery and the containers were ‘burial urns’ used for storing human remains.

In the 1930s, French geologists excavated a cave near one cluster, determining it had served as a crematorium. In 2019, archaeologist Louise Shewan uncovered 1,000-year-old remains of nearly a dozen dead babies near jars in a location near Ban Nahoung, dubbed Site 1.

An example of a full skeleton buried at Site 1 in the Plain of Jars. Most remains found near the stone jars date from between 700 and 1,200 years ago

While some places only have a handful of jars, Site 1 contains around 400 vessels, scattered across more than 60 acres. For the past five years, Shewan, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, has studied Site 1 and other jar locations with Dougald O’Reilly of the Australian National University and Thonglith Luangkoth of the Laos Department of Heritage.

They’ve uncovered three basic types of burials: One where a full skeleton was laid out; another where just bundles of bones were buried, and a third variety where remains were placed inside smaller ceramic jars.

Previous radiocarbon dating of the remains suggests most they’ve found were buried between 700 and 1,200 years ago. Now Shewan and her colleagues have examined the sediment under the jars to estimate their age.

They used optically stimulated luminescence, a technique that dates the last time quartz sediment was exposed to sunlight.

‘Directly under one jar, we had a date range of 1350 to 730 B.C., and under another, we had 860 to 350 B.C.,’ Shewan told Live Science. ‘I think we’re going to find a range of dates as we continue the analysis.’

That means the larger stone vessels are centuries older than many of the bodies buried nearby. What we surmise from that is the enduring ritual significance of these sites,’ Shewan said. ‘They were important for a very long time.’ Earlier research had dated the jars more recently, between 500 BC to 500 AD. 

The team believes bodies were placed in the large jars until they decomposed, then the bones were buried nearby.  It’s not clear if different societies used the jar sites at various times or if descendants of the people who made them continued the tradition.

‘Whether they were culturally related to the people who made the jars is a question that we can’t define yet,’ O’Reilly told Live Science.

Some jars were found with decorated stone discs and smaller clay jars and a variety of other artefacts, including beads and jewellery. Images on the discs buried with their decorated sides face-down include animals, human figures, and patterns of concentric circles.

Each has a cylindrical shape with the bottom wider than the top and most have lip rims, leading to speculation they all had lids. Little is known about how they were made but some archaeologists speculate they were carved with iron chisels.

The jars appear to have been quarried from several areas in the Xiangkhouang foothills before being spread over more than 90 sites, some housing just a handful and others hundreds.

In their new report, published in the journal PLOS One, the researchers also analyzed lead and uranium isotopes in a jar at Site 1 and found it had been mined at a sandstone quarry some five miles away.

How it was brought to the site is still unknown, they said.

10-Foot-Tall Stone Jars ‘Made by Giants’ Stored Human Bodies in Ancient Laos

10-Foot-Tall Stone Jars ‘Made by Giants’ Stored Human Bodies in Ancient Laos

Stonehenge inspires awe, but there’s an even more mysterious ancient scene in Laos. The Plain of Jars consists of thousands of prehistoric stone vessels scattered over hundreds of square kilometres near Phonsavan, in the northeastern part of the country—a hilly area, despite the “plain” in the name. The huge jars form a surreal sight—some are up to ten feet tall and weigh several tons. It’s an archaeological wonder that experts still haven’t pinned down. 

Several human burials, thought to be around 2,500 years old, have been found at some of these sites in Laos, but nothing is known about the people who originally made the jars.

An expedition of archaeologists from Laos and Australia visited the Xiangkhouang region in February and March this year to document known jar sites and to search for new jars-of-the-dead sites and stone quarries.

Local legends say the carved stone jars were created by a race of giants to brew rice beer, but archaeologists think they were used in burial rituals.

The new finds show that the mysterious culture that made the stone jars were geographically more widespread than previously thought, said Louise Shewan, an archaeologist at the University of Melbourne, and one of the expedition leaders.

The joint Australian and Laos archaeological expedition searched for new jar sites in the Xiangkhouang region and excavated a previously known jar site.

The largest and best-known jar site is the famous Plain of Jars, located in relatively open country near the town of Phonsavan. That site contains around 400 carved stone jars, some as tall as 10 feet (3 m) and weighing more than 10 tons (9,000 kilograms), and the first archaeological investigation of it was made in the 1930s.

But Shewan said that the majority of the jar sites usually contained fewer than 60 carved stone jars, and were found in forested and mountainous terrain surrounding the Plain of Jars, spread over thousands of square miles.

Ancient stone jars

Shewan told Live Science that the search for new jar sites took the expedition into “extremely rugged, forested terrain,” as the researchers looked for ancient relics reported by local people.

Relying on local knowledge meant the archaeologists could avoid the ever-present danger of unexploded Vietnam War-era bombs, she said. U.S. warplanes dropped an estimated 270 million cluster bombs on Laos during the war.

The Laos government agency that oversees clearance efforts reports that more than 80 million unexploded bombs are scattered around the country.

Although the region is best known for the stone jars on the Plain of Jars, most of the ancient jar sites are in heavily forested and mountainous areas.

The latest expedition, in addition to accurately mapping many of the reported sites in the Xiangkhouang region, found 15 new jar sites, containing a total of 137 ancient stone jars.

Shewan said that the newly discovered jars were similar to those found on the Plain of Jars, but some varied in the types of stone that they were made from, their shapes and the way the rims of the jars were formed.

Burial rituals

Local legends include a story that the enormous stone jars were made by giants, who used the vessels to brew rice beer to celebrate a victory in war. But 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.

Australian and Lao archaeologists found more than 137 ancient stone jars at 15 new sites in the remote and rugged Xiangkhouang region.

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.

Excavations in 2016 revealed that some of the stone jars were surrounded by pits filled with human bones and by graves covered by large carved disks of stone. These appear to have been used to mark the grave locations.

The latest expedition also found buried disks and other artefacts. Those included several beautifully carved stone disks, decorated on one side with concentric circles, human figures and animals. Curiously, the stone discs were always buried with the carved side face down.

“Decorative carving is relatively rare at the jar sites, and we don’t know why some disks have animal imagery and others have geometric designs,” expedition co-leader Dougald O’Reilly, an archaeologist at Australian National University in Canberra, said in a statement.

The excavations around some of the stone jars also revealed decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, decorative disks that were worn in the ears and spindle whorls for cloth making. Researchers also discovered several miniature clay jars that looked just like the giant stone jars and that were buried with the dead.

The scientists will now use the data and photographs from the new jar finds to reconstruct the sites in virtual reality at Monash University; then, archaeologists across the globe can use the VR to examine the sites in detail.