Jars of wonder, jars of hope

Successful de-mining is crucial to the preservation of Laos’ mysterious Plain of Jars, one of South-East Asia’s oldest archaeological wonders, and pave the way for its possible Unesco World Heritage listing that can, in turn, offer a lifeline to an impoverished community.

THE mists that have gathered since an afternoon downpour slowly dissipate to unveil a cluster of massive stone jars on the ground. As we approach Site 1 of the Plain of Jars, more of the structures can be seen beneath a grove of trees across the valley

The over 2,000 gigantic jars scattered across the highlands of northeastern Laos have baffled archeologists for decades. Nobody can confirm who made these enigmatic jars or its purpose although they are a significant contribution towards the study of the late prehistory of mainland South-East Asia and hold clues to its earliest cities.

For the past 30 years, researchers have risked their lives to examine them:
the Plain of Jars is an archeological site so dangerous that not even Indiana Jones would venture here! His whip is no match for the millions of unexploded ordnance, or UXO, buried in these hills.

From 1964 to 1973, the United States Air Force dropped 270 million cluster bombs on Laos, where 30% remain unexploded. Xieng Khoung, where the jars are found, is the second most heavily bombed province in Laos after Savannahkhet in the south.
Frustratingly for Unesco researchers like Belgian archeologist Julie Van Den Bergh, only seven out of some 58 sites are open due to the heavily contaminated ground.

A vessel for the dead
“We believe the Plain of Jars holds a piece of the puzzle of an ancient civilisation that is now extinct,” says Van Den Bergh, who is chief technical advisor for the Lao-Unesco Safeguarding the Plain of Jars programme.

“The jars date back to the Early Iron Age (500BCE-200CE). But who made these jars? There are an estimated 2,000 jars so there must have been a huge civilisation then that has vanished 2,000 years ago.

“What were the people doing here? Were they trading? We can learn so much from the past. We hope to nominate the Plain of Jars for World Heritage inscription by 2011. It will give pride to the people and offer them a connection to their history and their land,” he adds.

The jars are in clusters, some with as many as 400 of the structures. Some are 3m tall and weigh 13 tons. Several come with angular or round disks that could have been lids, carved with images of humans, monkeys or tigers.

Each jar is uniquely made, says Van Den Bergh, whether rough-hewn or smoothened, made from sandstone, granite, breccias, limestone or calcified coral. The enigmatic jars have all the makings for a fascinating study on unique proto-historic communities living in the area at that time.

French archeologist Madeleine Colani was the first to survey and record her findings on the Plain of Jars in the 1930s. Her 600-page monograph, The Megaliths of Upper Laos, offers invaluable insight.

Colani describes her findings at Site 1, called Ban Ang, with 331 jars and cleared of 127 UXO in 2004:

“They are disposed without regularity, some of them pressing one against another, others quite isolated. Each one is fashioned from a separate block of stone, and a small number of them are very well executed, as though turned on a lathe, bespeaking the hand of a true artist.”

Colani interpreted her findings on the sites as a prehistoric crematorium. At Site 1, she discovered a cave with handmade chimney openings. The cave floor showed the remains of burnt human bones and ash. Some of the jars contained cremated human remains, some with bronze and iron tools, cowry shells and glass beads.

Later research conducted by Laos’ Museums and Archaeology Department director-general Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy and Japanese researcher Eiji Nitta in the 1990s supported the theory of the jar fields as cemeteries and the jars as mortuary vessels. Their excavations revealed in-ground burial in the fields near the jars. However, none of the excavated bones showed signs of cremation.

It led to a working hypothesis that the jars had functioned as ritual urns for dead bodies to decompose and reduced, or distilled, to its essence.

The macabre ritual is not strange for South-East Asian nobility even till today, explains Van Den Bergh.

“It is a continuing traditional practice where large, elaborate ritual urns are still used to contain the corpses of deceased Cambodian, Thai and Laotian royalty during the early stages of funeral rites when the dead is undergoing gradual transformation from the earthly to the spiritual world,” she says.

The corpse is placed in a fetal position in a large, porous or vented jar-like container and kept until it decomposes. The remains are then cremated. After that, the ash and unburned bones are buried along with religious tokens or symbolic artifacts in a sacred location.
“The ancestral spirits will continue to guard the community. The urn or jar is then kept for re-use when the next family, clan or community member dies,” says Van Den Bergh.
“The Plain of Jars may be the earliest site at which all the elements of what later became recognisable as traditional South-East Asian mortuary behaviour were practised as an ensemble.”

This knowledge came later but as I stick my head inside a stone jar at Site 1 for a closer look, it looks like a water container as the brim is ringed with green algae and rainwater is pooled inside. I run my hands over the sides. It’s unnerving to think that this jar was perfectly smoothened by human hands 2,000 years ago.

Like all the other sites surveyed, Site 1 is on a wind-swept plateau encircled by mountains. From here, we can see bomb craters pockmarked across the brown soil. While the jars’ origins are hazy, eerie even, the sites offer beautiful scenery, especially when sunlight breaks through the clouds and shines on the jars.

“Each site is uniquely chosen for a purpose,” says Van Den Bergh. “We strongly believe many answers can be found in a nearby quarry. It will help us to know how the jars were made and transported. But the area is still heavily contaminated by UXO.”

An ancient site for the future
Laotians have a legend that the jars were made to brew rice wine for a grand feast to celebrate a military victory by Khun Jeuam, a northern king, who had defeated the evil Chao Angka in a great battle on the plains. The largest of the jars, found in Site 1, is nicknamed King’s Cup for its size.

The theory that these jars are indeed vessels for the ancient dead is further supported by other similar archeological sites of funeral urns discovered in the Cachar Hills in northern India’s Assam district that have similar design as the urns in Laos.

English scholars J.P. Mills and J.H. Hutton discovered these urns in 1928 where they found human remains inside and noted that cremation was still practised by the Kuki, a group of people who had inhabited the hills since the 16th century.

Colani also pointed out urns with human remains were found buried along the shores in Sa Huynh, south of Danang city, Vietnam. All three sites from India to Laos to Vietnam lie along a linear path, which she believed had been a caravan route followed by prehistoric salt traders from India.

“If our interpretation is correct, we are in the presence of three links from the same chain: the ancient monoliths of Cachar, the stone jars of Xieng Khouang and the necropolis of Sa Huynh,” she wrote.

The route would have passed through Xieng Khouang for salt, which was available in the Laotian uplands. Salt is still used for fermented fish paste, the region’s dietary staple, and possibly as a stable resource base for the communities of the Plain of Jars to exchange for items such as cowry shells from the East and glass beads from the West.

The area may have been part of a trade route. Today, it holds the promise of tourist dollars and development. Efforts to safeguard and develop the Plain of Jars began in 1998 with Unesco and the Laotian Government initiating a long-term programme. It is urgent as some jars have been looted since Colani’s exploration.

“The project’s goal is to reduce poverty and promote sustainable livelihoods through social-cultural and economic development in Xieng Khouang. A sustainable Community Based Heritage Tourism programme will run with a participatory management system,” explains Van Den Bergh.

Phases 1 and 2 (1998 to 2002) have provided a comprehensive survey of the Plain of Jars with a detailed cultural heritage inventory of all sites. UXO clearance of Sites 1 to 3 was conducted from 2003 to 2005 along with community workshops on managing the sites.

The current Phase 4 from 2006 to 2010 will see further academic research and analysis of the findings to produce interpretive materials for visitors and the eventual World Heritage nomination in 2011.

Seven villages were chosen for their tourism potential. Ban Nan O is vital as the most frequently visited jar site. It’s also close to Phonsavanh, a small town with dusty streets lined with rows of shops, eateries and small hotels.

Van Den Bergh is hopeful that the site will uplift an impoverished community as what has happened in the ancient capital city of Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site since 1995.
But first, the sites must be cleared of its unwanted legacy of the Vietnam War. Some 20,000 tourists visit annually.

“Can you imagine 100,000 visitors trampling through the land?” says Van Den Bergh.
“The risk is tremendous. It is our responsibility to ensure that the site is safe before it welcomes tourists. And it doesn’t mean it’s 100% cleared. The land is cleared for just 1m to 5m deep. There has to be solid and constant management to ensure that erosion is handled as it may displace buried UXO.

“Nomination of the Plain Of Jars for World Heritage will ensure ongoing national and international protection, and increased interest in the site will lead to downstream benefits of more livelihood opportunities through increasing visitors. It offers a lifeline for the people.”
For more information visit the project site at unescobkk.org/culture/pdj.

Related Story:
Bombs away!