When I first saw Site 1 at the Plain of Jars, I was struck by how nonchalantly the 250 huge stone jars were scattered across the landscape. They all seemed to be planted about one-third below ground level and tossed at an angle, but not always the same angle nor in the same direction. The mystery is that no one knows what the purpose of the jars was.
The best-researched explanation comes from Madeleine Colani, a French archaeologist who spent three years studying the jars in the 1930s. Her research indicates that they were built by a civilization between 300 BC and 300 AD. No one has offered explanations regarding the beginning or the demise of the civilization that once thrived here.
Madeleine believes the jars were funerary monuments because she discovered charred human bone fragments in them. More recent studies suggest that the stone jars may have been used to distil corpses and the remains were later buried around the jars.
The jars were carved from five types of stone – sandstone, conglomerate (called molasse), limestone, granite and breccias. Each jar was likely cut from a single boulder. The average size of the jars is 1.5 meters in both height and diameter.
All of the jars are uncovered but there is some question about whether they were originally built with stone lids. Some of the jars have stone objects nearby which could have been lids, but experts believe those objects had a different ritualistic function.
The largest of the jars weighs 15 tonnes. They come in a range of sizes and it is obvious that each was carved individually. There were smaller, lighter jars at one time, but vandals made off with those light enough to be carried.
Those of you interested in visiting the Plain of Jars should travel to either Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang in northern Laos and then take a bus to Phonsavan. There are numerous modestly-priced guesthouses that you can walk to once you get off the bus in the centre of town. I made the mistake of renting a motorbike to make the excursion to the Plain with some friends I met on the bus. Having ‘been there, done that’ though, I would recommend that visitors sign up for one of the tours that take you to see the outstanding sights in the area. We lost at least two hours navigating across the countryside – time that would have been better spent seeing the sights.
It is very unfortunate that the United States Air Force saw fit to destroy many of these ancient jars. The USAF began extensive aerial bombardment over Laos in an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries and disrupt the supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Phonsavan was the most heavily bombed city in the world, although you would never suspect it today. It is quite likely it will retain that reputation, as even the most aggressive bombings from recent history pale in comparison. Experts estimate that the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than were used during the entirety of the Second World War. During that period, The USAF launched one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
The bombs were primarily anti-personnel bombs that held ‘bombies’ about the size of an apple – 30% of these bombs failed to explode. That means that there are about 80 million live bombies that remain undetonated in Laos. Until now, the US had made no effort to clean up the life-threatening mess it left behind. It is not uncommon to see young, legless Laotians today who were unfortunate enough to stumble across one of these American gifts.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved