An Australian team wants to solve the mystery of Laos' ancient Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars. Image: ANU

Australian archaeologists have started excavating at the Plain of Jars in Laos, trying to solve the mystery of the large stone carved containers.

A team, led by Dr Dougald O’Reilly of the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, has found human remains estimated to be 2,500 years old.

The project is the first major archaeological dig for more than 80 years at any of the 90 sites which make up the Plain of Jars. The sites feature carved stone jars up to three metres tall but their purpose remains a mystery.

“This will be the first major effort since the 1930s to attempt to understand the purpose of the jars and who created them,” says Dr O’Reilly.

“One theory is that they were used to decompose the bodies. Later, after the flesh was removed the remains may have been buried around the jars.

Bones uncovered at the Plain of Jars. Image: ANU

“What is now clear is that these are mortuary and were used for the disposal of the dead. The jars can number between one and 400 at each site, ranging in size from one metre to three metres tall.”

The dig has revealed three distinct types of burial. There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them, other burials where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels and a primary burial where a body was placed in a grave.

Scientific analysis will also provide evidence on the residential behaviour of the people.

“This will open up a huge amount of information into who these people were,” says Dr O’Reilly.

The Lao Government is currently pushing for the Plain of Jars to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a move that would provide tourism, preservation benefits and recognition.

The latest excavations form part of a five-year Australian Research Council Discovery Project.

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