Ancient human remains uncovered in Plain of Jars

Archaeologists working in Laos have discovered human remains in the Plain of Jars, giving hope we may finally understand the purpose of the thousands of stone vessels spread across the area

Southeast Asia Globe editorial
April 6, 2016
Ancient human remains uncovered in Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars, a curious area of hundreds of square kilometres of uplands in central Laos, is famous both for it limestone monoliths and tonnes of unexploded ordnance resulting from US bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War littered in the area. The excavations are the first since the 1930s, with the numerous live bombs and mines presenting a major obstacle to carrying out digs.

A team led by Dougald O’Reilly from the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology, discovered the remains believed to be 2,500 years old.

“One theory is that they were used to decompose the bodies. Later, after the flesh was removed the remains may have been buried around the jars,” O’Reilly said. “What is now clear is that these are mortuary and were used for the disposal of the dead. The jars can number between one and 400 at each site, ranging in size from one metre to three metres tall.”

plain of jars
Spread out: the discovery site in central Laos. Photo: ANU

Three distinct types of burial methods have been found, O’Reilly said. There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them, and others where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels.

“Our excavations have also revealed, for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where a body was placed in a grave,” the archeologist added.

As there is a lack of material objects buried with the bodies, it is difficult to be certain of their status within the society in which they lived. But in the coming months genetic analysis of the remains may shed some light on their origins.

Digging: the ANU team at work. Photo: ANU
Digging: the ANU team at work. Photo: ANU

A team is set to dig at a forested site next year, with hopes that more information will be gleaned from discoveries there.

“My gut feeling is that we’ll find very similar mortuary rituals,” O’Reilly told the BBC, “but it will be interesting to compare.”

The Lao government is currently lobbying for the Plain of Jars to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.

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