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A potted history

Among the most enigmatic sights in Laos are several meadowlike areas close to Phonsavan littered with large stone jars. Quite a few theories have been advanced as to the functions of the jars – that they were used as sarcophagi, or as wine fermenters, or for rice storage – but there is no evidence confirming one theory over the other. Lying around are the stone lids for a few of the jars. White quartzite rocks have also been found lying next to some of the jars, along with vases that may have contained human remains.

Madeleine Colani, a noted French archaeologist who spent three years studying the Plain of Jars in the 1930s, found a human-shaped bronze figure in one of the jars at Site 1, as well as tiny stone beads. The current whereabouts of these cultural artefacts and other Colani discoveries –photographs of which exist in her 1935 Megalithes du Haut Laos (Megaliths of Highland Laos) –are unknown. You can see the relief of a human figure carved onto jar No 217 at Site 1 – a feature Colani missed. Aerial photographic evidence suggests that a thin ‘track’ of jars may link the various jar sites in Xieng Khuang.

The jars are commonly said to be 2000 years old, but in the absence of any organic material associated with the jars – eg bones or food remains – there is no reliable way to date them. The jars may be associated with the equally mysterious stone megaliths (‘menhirs’ in Colani’s words) found off Rte 6 on the way north to Sam Neua, and/or with large Dongson drum-shaped stone objects discovered in Luang Prabang Province. Archaeological investigation has been slowed by years of war and by the presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Meanwhile, local legend says that in the 6th century a cruel chieftain named Chao Angka ruled the area as part of Muang Pakan. Sensitive to the plight of Pakan villagers, the Tai-Lao hero Khun Jeuam supposedly came down from southern China and deposed Angka. To celebrate his victory, Khun Jeuam had the jars constructed for the fermentation of rice wine. According to this version, the jars were cast from a type of cement that was made from buffalo skin, sand, water and sugar cane, and fired in a nearby cave kiln. A limestone cave on the Plain of Jars that has smoke holes in the top is said to have been this kiln (the Pathet Lao used this same cave as a shelter during the war).