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Plain of Jars

The explosive implications of archaeology at Laos’ most puzzling site

plain of jars archive site1

Editor's Note: Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue

 

I’m following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang Province. We’re inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.

 

Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a “secret war” against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze—and to archaeologists.

 

The jars are huge, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing 14 tons. Most are carved of sandstone, others of granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Some are round, others angular, and a few have disks that appear to be lids. Tools and human remains found inside and around the jars suggest their use and manufacture spanned centuries. The bulk of material dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800, and additional carbon dates are expected this summer.

 

Archaeologists are certain the Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites—but it is one with more questions than answers.

 

French archaeologist Madeleine Colani pioneered research in Xieng Khouang in the 1930s. She found jars with cremated human remains and a nearby cave with burned bones and ash. Colani speculated the cave was a crematorium, the jars were mortuary vessels, and the fields were ancient cemeteries. Today, more than 2,000 jars have been identified across the province.

 

These archaeological treasures sit in one of the world’s poorest regions. That’s why Van Den Bergh, a UNESCO consultant from the Hong Kong–based Archaeological Assessments, is here. She hopes to turn the Plain of Jars into a UNESCO World Heritage site. The UNESCO-Lao Project to Safeguard the Plain of Jars aims not only to protect the vessels but to rehabilitate this remote province by clearing bombs, restoring agricultural lands, and promoting tourism.

 

A specialist in geoarchaeology with a decade of experience in Asia, Van Den Bergh has worked in Laos on six-week stints for four years now. In conjunction with the Lao government and a geographer from Bangkok, the project includes training Laotians to recover, record, and store archaeological material; create a precise map of the jar fields; and identify key areas for preservation and tourism development. The project also enlists local villagers to help with these tasks and involves the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organization hired to remove explosives from the most popular jar sites.

 

Some dub the Plain of Jars “the world’s most dangerous archaeological site,” and Van Den Bergh readily agrees. While archaeologists occasionally encounter UXO in war-torn countries and military testing grounds around the world, perhaps no archaeological site is as contaminated as the Plain of Jars. Two archaeologists conducted limited excavations in the 1990s without incident, “but that’s just luck,” Van Den Bergh says. “I’ve come home from surveying and thought, I’m happy to be getting into the car and coming home.”

 

 

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