Newly Found ‘Jars of the Dead’ Could Help Solve the Plain of Jars Mystery


Originally discovered in the 1920s, and revisited in the 1930s in the Xieng Khouang plateau, the Plain of Jars in Laos is a strange, if not wonderous, sight to behold. Thought to be containers in which the people there buried their dead, the Plain of Jars dates to from 500 C.E. to 500 B.C.E., commonly known as the Iron Age. The jars can be seen strewn over thousands of miles of the plateau.

Some of the jars are about 10 feet tall and still contain human bones. Although they are colloquially known as the “jars of the dead,” there are many theories as to what the jars were used for, with the thought that they were used for human remains being the most prominent.

jars of the dead, plain of jars
Image by Australian National University

Other theories suggest that the ancient people using them used them for food storage, or to collect fresh rainwater from the monsoons that regularly hit the area. Another theory is more of a legend. It says that giants used the jars, created by the ancient king of the giants, Khun Cheung, to store his rice wine after a long, protracted battle.

Just recently, however, a new discovery of jars was found by researchers. The interesting thing about these jars is that few humans have ever seen the area in which they were found. In fact, many people who travel to the area don’t even know they exist.

Part of the problem in researching the jars is that doing so could get researchers killed. The area where the jars are located is littered with mines from the Laotian Civil War from the 1960s, also known as the Secret War. This was a war the CIA got involved in, and it is said they became somewhat militarized as a result.

jars of the dead, plain of jars
Image by Australian National University

A variety of organizations working on the sites are slowly removing the ordinances and trying to gain more funding to continue their work and make it safe for researchers and visitors. Sadly, the leftover munitions still injure and kill people to this day.

Ph.D. student of archaeology, Nicholas Skopal, is one of the researchers who has worked around the unexploded munitions. He said about the new find that:

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

In addition to the jars found, researchers found other artifacts as well – including miniature jars made from clay that are identical to the megalithic jars. Sadly, most of the thousands of jars were robbed of their artifacts over the years and were empty when initially found.

Other artifacts found in some of the jars and around the areas where they were found included:

“…Decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, discs warn in the ears and spindle whorls for cloth making.”

Additionally, the researchers found what they think are markers for burial sites in the way of carved discs, although they found them with the intricate carvings on the bottom side, buried in the ground.

jars of the dead, plain of jars
Image by Australian National University

All of the jars were traced back to a local quarry, although local doesn’t mean “close” in this case. In fact, researchers are trying to figure out how those who carved the jars at the quarry were able to transport them the few kilometers to their resting places. Especially considering some of them were so large that they weigh several tons.

An archaeologist working on the project, Dougald O’Reilly, wonders why the people who moved the jars to the area did so, especially considering there is zero evidence of a human civilization actually living there. The lack of human inhabitants, ancient or otherwise, lends credence to the idea that the jars were used to give the dead a last resting place. Researchers also wonder why the people who placed the jars would make smaller renditions out of clay, just to place them inside the megalithic jars.

Whatever the reason for the jars, those who take care of the sites have applied for special status for the Plain of Jars as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Until recently, though, this was almost impossible because of the sites being so dangerous.

Additionally, if visiting the Plain of Jars, keep in mind that it still is considered one of the most dangerous archaeological sites in the world, and only a few of the quarries are open to visitors.

See a quick tour of the sites here:

Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube Video


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