War Kept Laos’ Plain Of Jars An Enigma — Scientists Now Unraveling Its Morbid Purpose

In Iron Age-era Laos, an ancient people had a morbid way of burying their dead. They apparently placed the corpses in stone jars, waited for the flesh to fall from their bones, then returned to collect and bury the skeleton.

This is what archaeologists from Australia now believe was the purpose of the mysterious Plain of Jars in Laos, an ancient site that has puzzled them for decades. But for now, that’s just a theory, and their true purpose still remains to be uncovered.

The Plain of Jars encompasses 85 different sites in Laos. Each contains at least one and up to 400 massive stone containers, dating to 600 B.C. and 500 A.D., Australian Geographic reported. They range in size from three feet to nine feet tall, and two to 6.5 feet in diameter.

Archaeologists have been able to study the spot for the first time since the 1930s thanks to lead researcher Dougald O’Reilly, who spearheaded the research. He was first captivated by the enigmatic remains during a trip to Laos in the late 1990s.

He had stumbled upon a true historical enigma. Many of the sites are located in remote areas that are difficult to get to. More recently, they were on the North Vietnamese supply route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, BBC News explained.

In the decades after the war, these archaeological treasures were littered with unexploded bombs and mines. Today, the area has been cleared, and scientists can finally begin to study the Plain of Jars. They’ll be the subject of a five-year research project, and the government of Laos is working to have it declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Archaeologists first visited Laos’ Plain of Jars in February and spent five weeks excavating a site that’s a favorite of tourists near Phonosavan, a provincial capital. They found 384 of the pots and human remains.

They determined that the jars seemed to be made of stone found in a nearby quarry, meaning they had to be dragged to the area. Some were decorated with carvings of humans or animals.

“They would carve them in situ at the quarry, then bring them to the selected location where they wanted to set them up – whatever reason that was we can’t really determine at this point,” O’Reilly said. “But certainly in the order of (five or six miles) in some cases they were dragging these monstrous, multi-tonne stones to place them in the landscape.”

Research on the Plain of Jars revealed a morbid purpose: corpse preparation, the archaeologist explained to ABC Online.

“One theory is that [the jars] were used to decompose the bodies. Later, after the flesh was removed, the remains may have been buried around the jars. What is now clear is that these are mortuary and were used for the disposal of the dead.”

They also found three burial types at the Plain of Jars. In one, bones were put in ceramic vessels, in another they were buried in a pit covered with limestone blocks, and the third was a primary burial in which the body was placed in a grave. A primary burial hasn’t been seen before at these sites.

Scientists will keep studying the Plain of Jars by examining the natural environment, the jars’ use, and undertaking carbon dating, isotopic research, and analysis of the remains discovered. They’re also searching for signs that people lived there.

“We’re trying to find evidence of occupation. Because these are mortuary sites, there’s no evidence of people living near,” O’Reilly said. “Indeed if the jars were used to decompose bodies you probably wouldn’t want to be living in close proximity.”

Next year, they’ll return to the Plain of Jars and a second spot, located in a forested area, for comparison and to answer some of the remaining questions.

“We’d hope to be able to tell a little bit about perhaps where the people came from, where they lived, and paint a more robust picture of their mortuary traditions and the health of the people as well, if we can discern that.”

Laos is located in Southeast Asia and is landlocked by Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and China.

[Image via Stanislav Fosenbauer/Shutterstock]