There must have been something in the minds of all early peoples. You just know they sat around the campfire, trading stories and plotting, scheming, and planning on how to create sizeable stone displays that would drive their distant progeny nuts trying to figure out just exactly what the heck they were up to. The Easter Island moai, the pyramids, Stonehenge—so much effort, and really, for what? Of course there is no end of amateur speculation and academic conjecture about their purposes, most of it based on logical motives that seem reasonable…or to signal ancient astronauts. Only somewhat less puzzling are the items found spread across a couple of thousand square miles of northern Laos. The hilly area surrounding the northern city of Phonsavan, in Xieng Khouang province, is known as the Plain of Jars. In it lie thousands of stone vessels, thick-walled “jars,” in varying sizes up to ten feet in height, and several feet around. The biggest are estimated to weigh upwards of 25 tons. They are found in groups at 90 or more sites, some holding hundreds of jars and others no more than one, but new clusters of them continue to come to light. There is no pattern to their distribution across the landscape. They are made of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Scattered around the jars are stone discs, some few with decoration, most plain.
Those are the facts that are evident to an observer, but beyond that, the mysteries abound. Who made these gigantic things? How? Where did they get the material? What were they used for? The first Westerner to do a study of them was a French archaeologist named Madeleine Colani who encountered them in the early 1930s. The area of the Plain is fairly remote even today, and back then it must have been a gruelling overland journey. Her observation was that the jars had something to do with burial, but not in the sense of a casket. There are beliefs even now among some nearby cultures that a person’s spirit does not leave the body at the moment of death, but that it lingers for a while. These receptacles may have been used as a resting or storage place until the body decomposed, and then the bones would be burnt, and buried. A cave nearby the first area studied had signs of cremation, so this lent credibility to this idea. Bones have been found associated with the jars, although not in them, so the order of the process or even its accuracy is not fully known. The flat, circular stones found near the jars might at first look to be lids, but there are far fewer discs than vessels, as few as a tenth the number, and they do not necessarily fit the jars. Some speculate that the discs acted as grave markers for smaller clay burial pots, found buried nearby, containing cremated remains. Grave robbers have probably made off with a lot of valuable cultural evidence over the centuries that might have given us more clues about all this.
The locals have their own conclusions on the origin of the jars. These Hmong people tell stories of a race of giants who brewed vast quantities of rice wine in them to party after a big victory over their rivals, or of another giant who kept whiskey in them to satisfy his drinking problem. The difficulty of knowing the real story is that the people who apparently made and used the jars lived as much as 2,500 years ago, between 500 BC and 500 AD, and there are no written records, and no habitation sites to provide cultural clues. The area was once a crossroads of cultures as traders moved from the Mekong River to the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, and the Plain must have had a special significance as a place of spiritual importance. The stone used to make many of the jars was sourced at quarries a few miles away, and the staggering job of hewing it into container shapes was probably done with simple bronze and iron chisels. The method by which these enormous objects were then transported to their current resting places can only be hypothesized. They could conceivably have been rolled, given the cylindrical shape of most of them, or dragged with the help of draft animals, but it wouldn’t have been easy. Though the area is called the Plain of Jars, it is not planar, but hilly and more uneven than the name would suggest. The effort to move just a handful of these things across such terrain would have been substantial, but hundreds or thousands? These people were determined.
More would be known about this mysterious place if archaeologists could do more work there, but there is a big problem. It’s not unfriendly locals threatening violence or the bureaucracy of an obstructionist government. It’s bombs. During the Vietnam War (as it’s called in the US), Americans dropped something on the order of 270 million cluster bombs on the Plain of Jars in order to hamper the movement of soldiers and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near the Laos-Vietnam border. Perhaps a third of them did not detonate, and now pepper the landscape with potential death. To this day, several Laotians are severely injured, or more likely killed outright, on a monthly if not weekly basis by this leftover ordnance. Efforts to clear the land are ongoing, it’s but slow and extremely dangerous work—at current rates, it won’t be done until early next century. Plowing the ground to farm can be deadly, so the region is chronically short of food. Movement in the area is limited to designated trails and safe zones delineated by red and white perimeter markers. One steps outside those havens at one’s severe risk. For this reason, scholarly study has been minimal, and the government’s desire to develop the tourist potential has been constrained. Large groups of photo-snapping travelers wandering wherever their curiosity leads them could prove disastrous. So while there are more than 90 sites of jar collections, fewer than ten are available to the public. For now, researchers are doing drone flights over inaccessible jar sites and creating 3-D video/virtual reality records to at least allow the study of jar types and their relative positioning.
The leftover bombs are an ongoing nightmare, but for the jars themselves, the hot war was the most dangerous time. Many were blown apart, damaged, or knocked over by the blasts. Bomb craters are still plainly visible. Still, the great majority survived, although vandals are known to inflict damage, and locals often use the ancient containers for practical purposes like storage. The inhabitants of the region are mostly poor farmers for whom the jars are just big old relics they have seen lying around all their lives. All this has an effect on the ability of archaeologists to piece together the clues behind this vast collection of giant artifacts. But interest in the ancient mystery is strong, and the Plain of Jars is now on the list for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honor that can only increase awareness of the importance of the place and its urgent need for protection and study.
For history buffs or anyone who wants a comprehensive view of Laos and its surrounding countries, nothing beats this National Geographic wall map of Southeast Asia, originally made back during the Vietnam War. It features hundreds if not thousands of town and city names, and regional names, along with some notation related to that conflict. Available with a click from Maps.com.
caption: Blue area indicates the Plain of Jars, in northern Laos.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Central Intelligence Agency (Public domain)
caption: Cluster bombs were dropped in “pea pod” containers which split open in mid-air to rain their contents over the landscape. These are in a war museum.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Ukumar17 (CC by SA 4.0)
caption: It is wise to stay on the path. Old bomb crater at left.
source: Flickr: Cluster Munition Coalition (CC by 2.0)
caption: The jars are often found in groups.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Jakub Halun (CC by SA 4.0)
caption: Some jars have been damaged by vandalism, war, or just time.
source: Flickr: Mr ATM (CC by 2.0)
caption: Stone discs are sometimes found, but they are not thought to be lids. This one may have been placed by visitors.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Chaoborus (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: They’re all too big to move easily, but some of the jars are truly enormous.
source: Flickr: Carrie Kellenberger (CC by 2.0)