The ‘death jars’ of Laos continue to intrigue

The so-called “death jars” of Laos could be more widespread than previously thought.

Australian archaeologists and Lao Government officials have reported discovering 15 new sites containing 137 of the massive stone jars, which are believed to be around 1000 years old.

Experts believe the jars are related to disposal of the dead, but nothing is known for sure about their original purpose or the people who brought them there.

“These new sites have really only been visited by the occasional tiger hunter,” says ANU’s Nicholas Skopal. “Now we’ve rediscovered them, we’re hoping to build a clear picture about this culture and how it disposed of its dead.”

What’s intriguing, says Skopal’s colleague Dougald O’Reilly, is that there are no signs of occupation in the surrounding area, suggesting the jars were transported over a distance.

“It’s apparent the jars, some weighing several tonnes, were carved in quarries, and somehow transported, often several kilometres to their present locations,” he says. “But why these sites were chosen as the final resting place for the jars is still a mystery.”

The recent excavations revealed carved discs which are most likely burial markers placed around the jars. The imagery includes concentric circles, pommels, human figures and creatures.

Curiously, the decorated side of each disc was buried face down.

“Decorative carving is relatively rare at the jar sites and we don’t know why some discs have animal imagery and others have geometric designs,” O’Reilly says.

Typical iron-age artefacts were found with the burials – decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, discs worn in the ears and spindle whorls for cloth making. However, it was one particular find piqued the researchers’ interest.

“Curiously we also found many miniature jars, which look just like the giant jars themselves but made of clay, so we’d love to know why these people represented the same jars in which they placed their dead, in miniature to be buried with their dead,” say O’Reilly.

“We’ve seen similar megalithic jars in Assam in India and in Sulawesi in Indonesia, so we’d like to investigate possible connections in pre-history between these disparate regions.”

More than 90 jar sites have been identified over the years in the “Plain of Jars” in Xieng Khouang Province in central Laos. The first scientific study of them was carried out in the 1930s by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani.

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