As stated in a previous post, our plan with the Plain of Jars was to see the main three sites in reverse numerical order. Our thinking in doing so was to see Site 1, the largest and most celebrated site, last. We figured that to go straight there would be to risk an anticlimactic experience. As a result, when he arrived at Site 2, we still hadn’t seen the main site. Our first impression was that Site 2 was more frequented than Site 3, yet still very quiet by most standards. We didn’t yet realize that the majority of tourists to the region are content to look at Site 1 and venture no further.
Of particular interest to me was a signboard at the ticket office for Site 2 which explained some of the history of the sites. In all honesty, this single sign was more informative than dozens of websites on the Plain of Jars put together. Too often people just regurgitate the line that the Plain of Jars are an ‘enigmatic presence’, ‘a mystery in stone’ or more such mystical nonsense. To judge from much of what is written about the site online, you’d think that archaeologists couldn’t make heads or tails of them. In truth, it had been known since the 1930s that they represented one of the most remarkable mortuary complexes in South-East Asia. While many details remain open to speculation, it seems undisputed that the jars are associated with funerary practices among the ancient peoples of the region.
The French archaeologist Madeleine Colani pioneered research in Xieng Khouang province in the 1930s. She found cremated human remains inside and around the jars and also a cave near Site 1, with burned bones and ash. Colani speculated the cave was a crematorium, the jars themselves were mortuary vessels, and the jar-clusters, of which there were numerous examples in the region, were ancient burial grounds. While a hundred different jar sites have now been catalogued, and much more detailed knowledge about burial practices has been gained, Colani’s basic thesis has been borne out by all the subsequent research. Over the years, there have been various findings in the vessels, including cremated fragments of bones and teeth, and glass beads.
In 2016 the Plain of Jars made headlines again when archaeological research at the site indicated that they were used for ‘distilling bodies’. This was a new twist on Colani’s thesis, but it did not deviate from her basic position, which was that the jars represented a mortuary complex. The head archaeologist of the investigation, Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, reached the conclusion that the jars were used for ‘distilling bodies’. He wrote in one interview, “One theory [ his own ]is that they were used to decompose the bodies. Later, after the flesh was removed, the remains may have been buried around the jars.” Based on what you can see at Site 2 (and other sites in the region), this theory makes a lot of sense.
At Site 2 the jars are situated on two adjacent hilltops, which a dirt road passes between them. In other words, there are two main clusters here, but there is only a short distance between them; the one on the right is set atop a comparatively open and unvegetated hill with great views, and the one on the right is set inside a grove of trees, making it more reminiscent of Site 3. Heading to the one on the right first, we found ourselves drawn by the moody views across the hills and valleys of the Laotian Cordillera. This part of the country really does have a unique atmosphere, especially when experienced on an icy winter’s day. However, we eventually managed to draw ourselves away from the landscape to inspect the jars.
We soon noticed which the sizes of the openings of the jars varied considerably. Armed with the information from the signboard about ‘distilling bodies’, this fact took on an unsuspected significance. It seemed probable that the sizes of the openings had been specifically carved to suit the size of the deceased’s body. Obviously, you would not normally need as big a cavity for a child as an adult, or indeed a woman as a man. Walking around on the hilltop, we noted that the openings did vary to a considerable extent, which supported the ‘distilling bodies’ thesis. Once the flesh had rotted away, also picked at by birds or eaten by rodents, the skeleton could be taken out, put in the earth and, in some instances, marked with a stone disc.
From there we crossed the road and looked at the jars inside the grove. These jars were under the heavy umbrage of some particularly large and densely-foliaged trees. This atmosphere on forest gloom made for a change from the open, airy atmosphere across the road. In terms of photography, it had the advantage of contrast. The shots we took here had an interesting backdrop of gnarled buttress roots and a thick leaf-canopy. As with their neighbours across the road, there are many fine examples here. Overall, there are more cracked specimens than at Site 3 but less than at Site 1, where the jars show the most damage. Having explored the grove, we headed off for the leading site.