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Letter from Laos

A Singular Landscape

New technology is enabling archaeologists to explore a vast but little-studied mortuary complex in war-damaged Laos


Monday, December 12, 2016

Letter From Laos Stone Jars 

In the landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, thousands of massive stone jars dot the Xieng Khouang Plateau. Scattered across 2,100 square miles of steep slopes, grassy fields, and forested foothills, these ancient megaliths create an archaeological landscape known as the Plain of Jars. The jars, more than 2,000 in all, are distributed across at least 80 sites—some with just a few, others with nearly 400. Most jars sit on mountain slopes, and the largest, which can be as much as nine feet tall and six feet in diameter, are found in highland locations above 3,600 feet. The majority are carved from sandstone, and geologists estimate the heaviest weigh 25 tons or more. One of the biggest assemblages is found at a location called Site 1, where 344 jars sit in wide-open spaces on the windswept plains outside the town of Phonsavanh, the capital of Xieng Khouang Province.


Intriguingly, almost nothing is known about the people who created the jars 1,500–2,500 years ago. They left no written texts, inscriptions, domestic structures, or habitation sites. Few excavations have been conducted, and not many bodily remains have been found, compounding uncertainty about their identity, beliefs, and practices. Now, a newly formed five-year project funded by the Australian Research Council, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Plain of Jars, has come to northern Laos and is combining traditional archaeological excavations with new research technologies to create a picture of the people who have remained such an enigma for so long.


In February 2016, the team conducted its initial digs at Site 1 during an unusually frigid stretch of winter weather. One windy morning, archaeologist Louise Shewan of Monash University crawled across the ground, still damp after a drenching rain, into a pit only 6.5 by 6.5 feet. She grabbed a trowel and began to work beside two Polish researchers, one of whom was Joanna Koczur from the University of Szczecin. “Please don’t rain,” said Koczur. “Yesterday it was just crazy—it was like a swimming pool in here.”


Letter From Laos Burial ExcavationThe three scraped away the red earth using brushes and tiny picks designed for precision. Their work centered on a round object on the packed dirt floor, which Koczur had found the day before. They worked meticulously to reveal more of what lay beneath. At first the object resembled a rock, smooth on top and caked with mud on the underside. But it was not a rock at all; rather, it was a small orb of bone, part of a fragile human skull, which they later named “Burial 5.” The skull was surrounded by other bits of bone, so maneuvering around the trench among the delicate remains was difficult and physically demanding. “After five minutes in the same position, you are so stiff you can’t move,” said Koczur, who was dressed in layers of hats and jackets. Later that day, the team uncovered fragments from a second skull, and skull fragments and the mandible of a child. “Multiple burials in the same place are pretty fascinating,” says project director Dougald O’Reilly of the Australian National University, especially when up to this time scholars studying this area had found so few.






From the Archives:
 Letter From Laos Buried Jar
Plain of Jars Mystery
plain of jars archive monk
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