FEATURE: Differing sizes of Plain of Jars artefacts remain a mystery

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - The varying sizes of the numerous stone vessels scattered throughout the Plain of Jars in Laos’ Xieng Khuang province are something of an enigma to people puzzling over their origins.

They differ in height from tall, medium to short, while some have thick sides and others are thin, but the one thing they have in common is that they are all made of stone.

Groups of the so-called jars can be found in hills, woods and on flat land. Some contain about 150 while other groupings consist of about 300.

The jar sites contain large carved stone vessels, stone discs, secondary burial sites, tombstones, quarries and funerary objects dating from 500 BCE to 500 CE.

The jars and associated elements are the most prominent evidence of the Iron Age civilisation when they were made and used until the end of this era in about 500 CE.

At a meeting held in Azerbaijan last week the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) added the Plain of Jars, known locally as Thong Hai Hin, to its list of World Heritage Sites.

Lao officials have worked for 20 years to get the Plain of Jars recognised by UNESCO, so last week’s announcement was a major triumph for the country.

The expectation now is that the Plain of Jars will become an even bigger tourist attraction.

The Plain of Jars is located on a plateau and is named for the more than 2,100 tubular-shaped megalithic stone jars that are believed to have been used for funerary practices in the Iron Age, according to UNESCO.

Some people think that the jars were made in different sizes depending on whether they belonged to wealthy or poor families.

But an official at the provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department, Mr Phousavanh Vorasing, told Vientiane Times that was not the case.

“According to what we know, the makers of the jars cut the rock according to what they wanted. If they chose a large rock, they would spend more time making the vessel than if they used a smaller rock,” he said.

The biggest jar is 3.16 metres high and is located at the Plain of Jars Site No. 2, or Thong Hai Hin Nako, in Phaxay district, about 26 kilometres from the provincial capital Phonesavanh.

The jars at this site are situated on two adjacent hills. Access is easy because the road is paved.

Travelling from Phonesavanh on National Road D1 to Phaxay district, visitors will see a symbol at km 9, from where it is another 17km to reach the site itself.

The ancient stone jars are scattered throughout the districts of Paek, Phaxay, Phoukoud and Kham.

The Plain of Jars comprises about 80 distinct sites but Laos is including only 11 of these in the official World Heritage Site because they have the highest concentration of jars.

Some can also be found in Phoukhoun district in Luang Prabang province, which borders Xieng Khuang province.

Tour guides can take tourists to the 11 sites. Some of these are not far from towns but it will take all day to visit the more remote sites.

By road it takes about six hours to reach Xieng Khuang province from Vientiane. The route through Borikhamxay is much shorter than travelling on the winding and mountainous Road 13 North through Phoukhoun.

On July 6, the World Heritage Committee meeting also inscribed another six cultural sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

These sites were the Dilmun Burial Mounds in Bahrain, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Australia, Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City in China, Jaipur City in Rajasthan, India, Ombilin Coal Mining Heritage of Sawahlunto in Indonesia, and the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan.

The UNESCO inscription means that the Plain of Jars is Laos’ third World Heritage Site. The old town of Luang Prabang in Luang Prabang province was inscribed in 1995, followed by Vat Phou and associated Ancient Settlements within the Champassak Cultural Landscape in 2001.