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Plain of Jars

Phonsavan   |   Plain of Jars   |   battleground

August, 2004

Laos photo.
1. Stone jar
Laos photo.
2. Many stone jars
Laos photo.
3. Battle damage
Laos photo.
4. Crater

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The Xieng Khoang plateau has been a crossroads of history for thousands of years. At the time that the stone jars were made (about 500 BC to 500 AD) this area was an important trading center. Caravans passed through here traveling between the ancient civilizations of China, Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Thailand. Control of this trade made the local people wealthy. The stone jars that they made (see photo #1, at left) have long been a source of mystery and speculation. The first archaeologist to study the jars was Madeleine Colani. She worked here during the French colonial period and published her reports in the 1930s. Although there are numerous jar sites in 18 or more groups, only three sites are readily accessible to tourists. Most importantly, these 3 sites have been largely cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO).

We visited site #1, the largest and most interesting. There are about 250 jars here (photo #2), ranging in size from about 600 to 1,000 kg (1,300 to 2,200 pounds). The jars are scattered over a wide area in several small groups and one large group. Although there are many fanciful local myths about the origin of the jars, archaeologist have fairly well established both their origin and use. The jars were chiseled from large boulders, which explains the variation in jar sizes, and were then transported to their present location. There is a hillside in Muang Sui where several jars have been found that were only partially completed.

Based on evidence at the sites, and comparisons with other cultures living nearby, it is almost certain that the jars were used during the preparation of bodies for burial. The bodies were stored in the jars for a period of time to decompose, being reduced to their "essence" before cremation. Only wealthy and important individuals could afford the cost of a stone jar, and the jars were reused. Although many of the jars have been badly damaged or destroyed (photo #3), they still convey a sense of the importance that was attached to them by their ancient creators.

It was very sad for us to see just how many of the jars have been damaged, mostly by American bombs (photo #4). The loss of these important artifacts is just one more of the many tragedies of the Indochina (Viet Nam) War. But even in the midst of all this destruction, life goes on. We found a lovely butterfly perched on the rim of one of the jars.

UNESCO is in the midst of an important project to study and protect the Plain of Jars. So far, they have inventoried the jar sites and have plans for additional work in the near future. For more information, you can visit their website at www.unescobkk.org.


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Jim and Jamie Richter, http://gotouring.com/razzledazzle/
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Created 8/2004. All text & photos are © 2004 Jim Richter.