Archaeologists find Plain of Jars bones

Plain of Jars, Laos. Source: Flickr

An Australian and Laotian archaeological team has found human remains on the Plain of Jars, estimated to date back to the Iron Age around 2,500 years ago.

The find could help answer mysteries of about 100 jar and mortuary sites in the area.

The original purpose of the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang province, central Laos, has been a subject of vigorous debate.

Australian National University archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly, who led the team, said: “This is one of the great enigmas of the jars’ sites. These massive stone jars – some of them weighing up to 10 metric tonnes, that have been dragged eight to 10km from a quarry site and set up in groups.”

Little is understood of the civilisation that carved the jars from the quarries and what they contained.

O’Reilly said there was no known sites offering clues to the ethnicity and identity of the group who carved the stone jars.

There are about 100 sites each containing between one to 400 jars. O’Reilly and his team uncovered an ancient burial ground, known as Site One in the province, with more than 300 stone jars, stone discs and markers.

They discovered a variety of burial methods, including internment of complete bodies, the burying of bundled bones and body parts placed inside ceramic vessels and buried.

A separate joint investigation by the Lao Archaeology Division, National University of Laos and Australia’s James Cook University has also been underway in the same province, identifying porcelain and distinctive tobacco pipes that illustrate trade and cultural relationships in the country that was a crossroads between cultures.

Melbourne’s Monash University archaeological specialist Louise Shewan led a team and Lao Thonglith Luangkhoth, the archaeology division director with the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, was also invoked with the project.

Thonglith was quoted saying by the Lao media that the new finds were about 8km from Phonsavanh district’s centre.

“This discovery marks a significant milestone since archaeological excavations began in the area in the 1930s in collaboration with a French archaeologist,” Thonglith said.

French archaeologist Madeleine Colani two publications on the jars become essential reading on the subject but tonnes of unexploded ordnance dropped by the US Air Force in the 1970s have prevented much exploration.

O’Reilly said: “With our research, because we’ve been able to uncover a fair amount of human bone – we’ve got seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic jars – so a total of 11 mortuary contexts. We’re hoping we’ll be able to get some really good information about the people.”

Isotopic and chemical analysis on the human remains should offer an insight into the ethnicity of the jars’ creators.

“This really should be able to expand our understanding and as the project progresses perhaps we’ll get more and more information to answer those questions,” O’Reilly added.

There was a possible link with similar jar sites in Assam in India’s northeast.

“For everybody involved we’re really excited to have the opportunity to work at one of South East Asia’s most important archaeological sites and probably one of [Asean’s] least understood archaeological sites,” he said.

The five-year Australian Research Council-funded will inspect more remote regions of Laos and northeastern India with Indian archaeologists.

It is hoped the comparative analysis might unlock one of Asean’s most intriguing cultural mysteries.