Laos is scattered with jars of the dead

  Last updated July 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

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‘Death jars’ have been found strewn across a remote forest in Laos, leaving archaeologists puzzled how the stone jars got there and who was using them.


laos death jars_forest_burial

The jars were found strewn across a mountain forest. Credit: ANU


Archaeologists have discovered 15 new sites in Laos containing more than one hundred 1000-year-old massive stone jars, possibly used for the dead.


The jars of Laos are one of archaeology’s enduring mysteries. Experts believe they were related to disposal of the dead, but nothing is known about the jars’ original purpose and the people who brought them there.


Archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly from Australian National University (ANU) says that strangely, there are no signs of occupation in the surrounding area. This leads researchers to believe that the stone jars were transported over a distance, despite weighing a few tonne each.


“It’s apparent the jars, some weighing several tonnes, were carved in quarries, and somehow transported, often several kilometres to their present locations.”


“But why these sites were chosen as the final resting place for the jars is still a mystery. On top of that we’ve got no evidence of occupation in this region,” says O’Reilly.


Ancient burial practices more widespread than previously thought


The new find shows the distribution of the jars is more widespread than previously thought. It could also unlock the secrets surrounding their origin.


Nicholas Skopal from ANU, along with officials from Lao government, were the ones who identified the sites containing 137 jars, deep in remote, mountainous forest.


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


O’Reilly says the new sites show the ancient burial practices involving the jars was “more widespread than previously thought”.


Burial markers found, face down


This year’s excavations revealed carved discs which are most likely burial markers placed around the jars. Curiously, the decorated side of each disc were buried face down.


laos death jars_burial disc

Some burial markers were found with animal imagery. Credit: ANU


O’Reilly says the imagery on the discs found so far included concentric circles, pommels, human figures and creatures.


“Decorative carving is relatively rare at the jar sites and we don’t know why some discs have animal imagery and others have geometric designs.”


Typical iron-age artefacts were found with the burials – decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, discs worn in the ears and spindle whorls for cloth making. However, it was one particular find piqued the researchers’ interest.


“Curiously we also found many miniature jars, which look just like the giant jars themselves but made of clay, so we’d love to know why these people represented the same jars in which they placed their dead, in miniature to be buried with their dead,” say O’Reilly.


“We’ve seen similar megalithic jars in Assam in India and in Sulawesi in Indonesia so we’d like to investigate possible connections in pre-history between these disparate regions.”


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