Scattered over the windswept hills outside the town of Phonsavan in Laos, lie clusters of mysterious, carved stones in an area collectively known as the ‘Plain of Jars’. Despite decades of study many questions still remain concerning their purpose and origins…
Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang Province has something of a frontier feel, partly due to the long and slightly arduous journey required to reach it from the main tourist centres of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, and partly due to a rather desolate atmosphere imparted by Xieng Khouang's status as one of the most heavily bombed regions of one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world (the U.S. Air Force dropped more bombs on Laos, and primarily on the Plain of Jars, than it dropped during the whole of World War II). Its place on the tourist map is secured however, due to the presence of the enigmatic groups of carved stone jars that dot the landscape.
The Plain of Jars is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia, with jars carved from solid stone in a variety of sizes (the largest being 2.5m in height) and, given the amount of bombing that the region received during the Indochina wars, it’s incredible that as many as 2,500 jars have survived. Indeed, the largest of the jar sites, just outside Phonsavan, is pockmarked with bomb craters. Although archaeologists have dated the jars to somewhere between 500 BC and 200AD, remarkably no-one actually knows which civilization created them, other than that it was an iron age culture.
Many of the jars have lip rims, leading to the assumption that they originally had lids, although few of these have been found, which suggests that most of the lids were made from biodegradable material. Evidence in the form of bone fragments, teeth, glass beads and ceramics have steered archaeologists towards the theory that the jars formed burial urns, supported by evidence of graves located around the jars.
This hasn’t stopped the proliferation of alternative proposals concerning their function however, the most popular being that the jars were used to store a huge quantity of rice wine, brewed to celebrate liberation from ancient, cruel overlords. Another theory states that they were used to collect rainwater for the benefit of passing travellers.
Although there are 90 separate jar sites, spread over hundreds of square kilometres, only sites 1, 2 and 3, located on the hills surrounding Phonsavan, are easily accessible to visitors, and even these have only partially been cleared of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) with which the area is riddled. The safe access paths at the sites are delineated by red and white painted marker stones: stay on the white side to avoid a very unpleasant surprise! The Plain of Jars is the most famous attraction in Northeastern Laos, but despite this the jars sites are very low key and it is often possible to have them completely to yourself depending on the timing of your visit.
As a final twist to the mystery, other areas of similar jars have been discovered, notably in the Northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, around 600 miles away...
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