A team of archaeologists from the Australian National University has discovered over 100 ancient stone jars across 15 sites in Laos. The new discoveries add to the thousands of other strange jars found on the central plains of Laos, increasing the scope of one of Southeast Asia'a most enduring archaeological mysteries.
Known as the Plain of Jars, these sites were first reported on by Western archeologists in 1935. It wasn't until the 1990s that researchers were able to begin systematically exploring the massive region, partially due to the high volume of unexploded bombs left over from US Air Force offensives during the Vietnam War.
The 15 newly discovered jar sites add to more than 90 previously recorded locations, indicating the distribution of these artifacts was more widespread than archaeologists assumed. The new sites reveal another 137 massive stone pots, found in mountainous forests in the Xieng Khouang province.
"These new sites have really only been visited by the occasional tiger hunter," says Nicholas Skopal, one of the ANU researchers working on the project. "Now we've rediscovered them, we're hoping to build a clear picture about this culture and how it disposed of its dead."
Very little is conclusively known about the people that created these large stone jars, or the jars' true purpose. The artifacts are thought to date back to sometime between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The general scientific consensus at this stage is the jars were used in ancient burial practices although others suggest they may have been used to store water, or even brew alcohol.
The new discoveries expand the mystery of the jars by revealing their presence across even larger spans of land. As ANU archaeologist Dougald O'Reilly suggests, it is still unclear who actually constructed and used these stone jars.
"It's apparent the jars, some weighing several tonnes, were carved in quarries, and somehow transported, often several kilometers to their present locations," says O'Reilly. "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."
A number of intricately carved large stone discs were discovered alongside the jars at some of these new sites. The imagery on these discs varied from human figures to geometric designs. The archaeologists hypothesize these discs to be decorative burial markers, however the kind of decorative carving recently uncovered at these new sites has not been consistently seen at other sites, making it difficult to interpret their purpose.
"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," adds O'Reilly.
These new sites adds to the intriguing mystery of Laos Plain of Jars, affirming there is still much more to be discovered. Stifling progress has been the slow clearance of all the unexploded munitions in the region, limiting movement for archaeologists, however the scientists believe there are probably more undiscovered sites in heavily forested, unexplored regions so many clues are yet to be revealed.
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