Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Plain of Jars

I recently wrote a post dealing mainly with megalithic sites in Ireland. While writing this I was reminded of a site that has always fascinated me on the other side of the world. As megalithic monuments go, they don’t get too much more enigmatic than the Plain of Jars. Click here for a better set of pictures of this site than I could easily download.

Located near Phonsavan, in the mountains of Laos, are megalithic (literally “big stone”) monuments. But, almost uniquely insofar as I can tell, these objects are shaped as giant stone jars. Thousands of them have been identified and they are dispersed over a number of sites, but all within a relatively small area. These jars range in size but the largest of them are very impressive. They become even more impressive to the viewer when it becomes evident on inspection that they are carved from solid rock.

It is unclear what date should be assigned to them. Scholarly estimates range from 500 BC to 1100 AD. As they are carved into stone it is impossible to use standard radio-carbon testing on them and the continuous occupation of the site means that artefacts from a variety of eras may be found.

The main theories are that either the jars were the burial places of important people or it was a place for traders to stop and use the rainwater collected in the jars. The fact that these theories are so completely different highlights the difficulties in understanding this site.

There is however, a more immediate obstacle to understanding the site. During the Vietnam War the US Air Force carried out bombing raids on the surrounding countries of Cambodia and Laos to try to stop North Vietnamese supplies reaching the Viet Cong by different routes. The Plain of Jars was heavily bombed with some destruction of the artefacts. Due to the remote nature of the site and lack of resources allocated, the site is still quite dangerous decades after the bombing ended. Unexploded bombs and rusted shrapnel are a hazard for those who stray off the beaten track. There are ongoing projects to attempt to clear the site in its entirety and develop it into a major attraction and possibly a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I have to apologise to the reader for an ongoing theme over the last few posts, where I have spoken at length about the difficulty of getting real information about a particularly interesting place or event. I have decided to write some background articles about earlier history to provide perspective for those who are not comfortable with ancient history. If you enjoy the mystical fog of unknowing and have enjoyed the last few posts, I am delighted. If you are more comfortable with firm facts and such like, then rest assured that I shall return to the realms of the well-documented shortly.