The Plain of Jars
Students of the Vietnam War will know that there were two main battlegrounds across the border in Laos. Even the casually interested know the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but most haven’t have heard of the Plain of Jars, a location that was saturated with bombs during the US’ undeclared Secret War against the communist Pathet Lao. Down to this day it’s a dangerous place to visit, with unexploded munitions forcing tourists to stick to predefined paths. The tourists are there in the first place because of the archaeological remains that gave the region its English-language name: enormous urns, carved from sandstone or granite. There are thousands of them, up to three meters high and thirteen tons, spread across three hundred or more different sites on the Xiangkhoang Plateau.
The megalithic remains are historic in the same sense that Stonehenge is: they’re a connecting point between the present day and the ancient cultures of the world. Comparison to similar relics in Vietnam to the east suggest they started to be made around 500 BC and carried on as a tradition for 800 years. But they’re technically pre-historic like Stonehenge too, in that there’s no surviving written record of who worked the stone, or why. According to the Hmong people who live on the plateau in the modern day, they were created and used by a conquering northern king to brew massive amounts of lao-lao rice alcohol to celebrate a victory on the plain. The only in-depth scientific study of them was made by Madeleine Colani, a French archaeologist in a position to visit them in the 1930s when the area was part of French Indochina.
So what were they for? The Xiangkhoang Plateau is a source of salt and the wide Mekong River stretches south from it, so it was very likely on a number of ancient trade routes—a conjecture backed up by the otherwise inexplicable presence of cowrie shells among the other artifacts here, hundreds of kilometers from the ocean. Countries in the immediate area have almost always been centered to both the south and the east; in the period following the urns’ heyday the region was under the control of the Phuan Principality, which was a tenuous border state between the warring kingdoms of Muang Sa and Chinese-dominated Annam. So one theory is that the urns were used to collect monsoon rains for traders to drink as they followed their route through the contested border region. Using rain like this was common throughout ancient south and southeast Asia, and the urns would certainly work well in that role. But the ancillary discoveries made by Madeleine Colani and the few follow-up expeditions since then suggest otherwise.
Almost all the jars were empty, but a few, particularly some smaller ones that were found entirely buried, contained bones and sometimes teeth. Another common cultural practice in the area was the “distillation” of the deceased, allowing the soft tissues to corrupt and disappear. This dried the dead out to make them more suitable for cremation at a later point. Colani also found a cave with two natural chimneys, covered with traces of smoke, to fulfill the latter part of this process, and theorized that the urns were for holding the corpses during the first part. The larger urns were empty because they had held more important people and their grave goods, and so were subject to looting. Carved stone lids found around the plain backed up that idea. The smaller enclosures where she’d found the human remains had been left alone partly because they were much less obvious, and partly because they were for the poor who had little to steal.
There’s been little follow-up to Colani’s studies as first the French were embroiled in WWII and the Indochina War, then the Laotian Civil War brewed up and the leftover ordnance turned the plain into a de facto minefield. The advantages that had made the Plain of Jars an ancient trade route turned it into the crossroads of the multi-cornered fight between Laotian Royalists, Pathet Lao guerillas, North Vietnamese forces, and the United States Air Force. Eventually the US backed a Hmong general (and, some allege, opium warlord), Vang Pao who controlled the plain for a while, but the North Vietnamese army managed to dislodge him in 1970 and the plain turned into a massive refugee camp for something like 170,000 Hmong. The withdrawal of American support to first Laos and then South Vietnam then led to an exodus from the Plain of Jars region into the US as the Laotian communists took control of the country. The thriving Hmong communities in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin trace their roots to this, but most people have encountered the story from a completely different angle: the events behind the “Yellow Rain” biological warfare controversy having taken place on the Plain of Jars among other locations.
Things have been slowly been getting better for the Plain of Jars relics since then. The Laotian government has applied for World Heritage Site status, and UNESCO is already involved in protecting the jars and trying to clean up the tremendous number of munitions still scattered on the ground. While there were a few studies of the site between Madeleine Colani’s work in the thirties and now, the first long-term project since then began in 2005 under the guidance of a Belgian archaeologist. There is now even a hotel in the nearby town of Phonsavan, dedicated to tourism on the plain. Just remember to keep your feet on the paths.