Massive Stone Jars in the Highlands of Laos Are Shrouded in Mystery

By: Ashley Gabriel
September 01, 2019

A grassy plain in the highlands of Laos is speckled with something out of the ordinary: thousands of huge, ancient stone jars. The jars have been studied for decades, yet mysterious details continue to puzzle researchers and raise more questions than answers.

Morbid Matters

Known as the Plain of Jars, this more than 2,500-year-old collection of giant stone vessels is one of Eastern Asia's most important archaeological sites. Thousands of jars stretch across rice paddies, hills, and forests in the Xieng Khouang Province, a war-scarred region in the northeast part of the country. Ranging in size from three to 10 feet (one to three meters) and weighing up to 14 tons apiece, they've attracted archaeologists looking to make sense of their origin story.

Surprisingly though, the impressive archeological site was of little interest to western researchers until the 1930s when a French scientist named Madeleine Colani began surveying the area. Although her studies revealed major findings — like a nearby cave with human remains, suggesting the jars may have been used as funeral urns for chieftains — they also revealed puzzling details that led to years of unanswered questions. For one, despite remains uncovered in the cave, very few organic materials were found inside the jars, confounding Colani and others. That is, until recently...

In 2016, a research team out of Australia conducted the first major excavation since the 1930s, providing some long-awaited insight into the jars' purpose. The team dug near a popular tourist area and uncovered a burial site where human remains were found in three different ways: in ceramic vessels, in pits covered by limestone blocks, and buried in a traditional grave. This confirms that the jars were in fact used for mortuary purposes but suggests a new theory regarding their role in corpse preparation — as a place to decompose bodies prior to burial.

Ancient Water Bottles

All the morbidity aside, perhaps the most interesting part of the Plain of Jars' enigmatic origin story involves other sites of its kind. Research has also uncovered similar clusters of jars throughout Asia that, when connected with those in Laos, form a path all the way to Northern India! This has led scientists to believe that the jars were used in an international trade route through Asia. It's possible that rainwater collected in the jars for travelers to use during dry seasons. It would explain the many prayer beads found at the sites, potentially left behind as offerings.

One reason why the Plain of Jars has been drastically under-researched for decades is connected to its location. Considered by many to be the world's most dangerous archaeological site, the grounds are home to thousands of unexploded land mines, remnants from America's "secret war" with Laos in the 1960s. Although officials are working to have the area designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the bombs remain a major threat — only 7 of the 85 sites are open to visitors.

This is definitely one off-the-beaten-path item to add to your travel bucket list. That is, if you can get past the not-so-minor detail about the landmines.

This article first appeared on Curiosity.com.

Next Up

Women May Have Been Powerful Rulers of the Ancient World

A discovery in Spain has experts wondering whether women were once powerful rulers in ancient Europe.

The Hunt for Outlaw Jesse James’ Treasure

For decades, a story had circulated amongst locals in the Ozarks that Jesse James and his gang had hidden treasure from a bank robbery they’d carried out in 1874.

What's Inside the Secret Chambers in the Pyramids of Giza

A powerful new cosmic ray scan of the Great Pyramid of Giza could finally reveal what’s inside two voids in the structure that have baffled scientists for years.

A Canadian Teen Once Discovered an Ancient Temple – Using Google Maps

Most teenagers while away hours playing video games, scrolling TikTok, or texting friends. Not William Gadoury, a 14-year-old from Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec. Back in 2016, Gadoury was holed up in his bedroom, plotting ancient Mayan constellations against modern satellite images and coordinates.

A Majestic City Carved into Rock, Thousands of Years Ago

Carved into soft stone cliffs, the ancient sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans. These people were a nomadic Arab tribe–Bedouins–who roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds.

The Romantic, Heartbreaking Love Story Behind the Taj Mahal

Ivory white columns rise from the earth, framing the central masterpiece: an intricately carved marble domed structure stood on a square plinth, resplendent with arched doorways, and topped by a bronze moon that reaches for the sky.

Take Off with the Tipple Family on the All-New Series NATURE IS FLY

On the all-new series, NATURE IS FLY, go on adventures to experience nature and science with the Tipple family. They travel the country and meet the people who are the best in their fields of conservation and more.

Belize's Jungles are Wild, Mysterious and Full of Discovery

More than half of Belize, a Central American country with as many as 2 million indigenous Mayan inhabitants, is covered in dense, sprawling jungle – meaning the region has adventures galore for any traveler wishing to explore.

A Spanish Sunken Galleon Has a $17B Bounty Onboard - and Now You Can See It

Way back in 1708, when the War of Spanish Succession was waging across Europe and Latin America to decide who should be the next King of Spain, three Spanish galleons set sail from Panama. They were loaded to the brim with gold, silver, emeralds, and other jewels that had been extracted from the mines of Bolivia – and were vital in financing Spain’s costly war against its enemies.

We Just Found One of the Earliest Fragments of the Merlin Legend, with a New Take

In a library in the UK, research librarians stumbled upon one of the oldest known manuscripts detailing the legend of Merlin. Translated from Old French, the accidentally discovered text offers a slightly augmented take on a typically risqué Arthurian legend.