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The Ancient Plain of Jars in Laos

The Ancient Plain of Jars in Laos is one of the Southeast Asia’s most intriguing archaeologic sites.

Located in the Xieng Khouang Plateau, this mysterious plain is scattered with thousands of massive stone jars, some over 2,000 years old. These artifacts, ranging from one to three meters i height, have captivated archaeologists and travelers alike. Despite extensive research, the origins and purposes of these megalithic jars remain a mystery, adding to the allure of this UNESCO World Heriatge Site. Visiting the Plain of Jars offers a unique glimpse into an ancient civilization’s ritual and daily life, making it a must-see destination for history enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Discover the enigmatic beauty and historical significance of the Plain of Jars and explore the secrets of Lao’s rich cultural heritage.

Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars in Laos

Location of the Plain of Jars

In the upland valleys and lower foothills of Xiangkhoang Plateau have a thousand of stone jars scattered called the Plain of Jars or, ທົ່ງໄຫຫິນ Thong Hai Hin. The Xiangkhoang Plateau is at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, the principal mountain range of Indochina. The Plain of Jars is one of the most valued prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia. 

There are more than 90 jar sites that have been located in Xiangkhouang Province. Each site has an estimated amount of utmost 400 stone jars. The stone jars were discovered in the region in the 19th century by the French. 

Jar Illustrations

The stone jars vary in height and diameter between 1m and 3m and are all carved from rocks, shaped as cylinders with their bottom always wider than their top. They are undercorrected, with an exception of a jar in Site 1. The jar in Site has a human “frogman” bas-relief carved on its exterior.

As most of the jars have lip rims, researchers think that the jars are originally supported by lips, although only a few stone lids have been recorded. Some stone lids have been discovered at a few sites such as the Ban Phakeo(Site 52) that have been carved with animals that are thought to depict monkeys, tigers, and frogs. 

Burial/Crematorium Site Theory

Stone discs were also found. The discs, which vary from the lids, have at least one flat side and are grave markers placed on the surface to cover or mark a burial pit. Grave markers seldom appear but they are found closely in the area. 

A cave at Site 1 is a natural limestone formation with its opening facing the northwest and has two man-made holes at the top. The holes were said to be chimneys for a crematorium.

In the early 1930s, a French geologist and amateur archeologist named Madeleine Colani excavated the cave and found materials to support the theory of it being a crematorium. She also excavated and recorded at twelve Plain of Jars sites and even published two volumes of her findings in 1935.

Concluded that the Plain of Jars was a burial site in the Iron Age. She found embedded black organic soil, colored glass beads, burnt teeth and bone fragments inside the jars. She also found human bones, pottery fragments, iron and bronze objects, charcoals, glass and stone beads, and ceramic weights around the jars. 

In November of 1994 was the next archeological research in the site, which was conducted by Professor Eiji Nitta of Kagoshima University and a Lao archeologist Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy on Site 1. Nitta also claimed that the jars were used for burial, and dated them back to the late second or early first millennium BC based on the burial urn and associated grave goods.

In 1992 and 1996, Sayavongkhamdy undertook the surveys supported by the Australian National University. Sayavongkhamdy and Peter Bellwood interpreted the stone jars as a central person’s primary or secondary burial. It was again concluded by Van Den Bergh in 2007 as he also provided similar archaeological results.

Legend of the Plain of Jars

Lao legends tell us of a race of giants who inhabited the area and was ruled by their King named Khun Cheung. He fought a long and ultimately triumphant battle against their enemies. The jars were said to have been built for the King to brew and store huge amounts of lau hai (lau means alcohol while hai means jar, so lau hai means ‘rice beer’ or ‘rice wine’ in the jars) as celebration to his triumph against the elements. 

Another story of the locals say the the jars were made from natural materials like clay, sand, sugar, and animal products in a type of stone mix, that led locals to believe that the cave at the 1st Site is actually a kiln, and that the jars were fired and made there and are not actually hewn or carved from the stone.

Current Day

Between May 1964 and the summer of 1969, the Plain of Jars was heavily bombed by the United States Air Force operating against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces during the Secret War or the Laotian Civil War. This included 262 million anti-personnel cluster bombs. And about 80 million of these bombs have not exploded and remained  as a deadly threat to the population.

This made the Plain of Jars very dangerous to excavate and to tour.

The Mines Advisory Group collaborated with UNESCO funded by the New Zealand Government, cleared unexploded bombs from the three most visited sites from July of 2004 to July of 2005. A second phase of the bomb cleaning at four more sites was again funded by the New Zealand Government in 2007.

On the 6th of July in 2019, UNESCO recognized the Plain of Jars as a World Heritage Site.

Category: Interesting Facts

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