Steve McKenna studies a bizarre and ancient site that also bears the scars of a more recent ‘secret’.
The Plain of Jars has all the ingredients to stir the imagination. Shrouded in mystery and myth, and laced with intrigue and tragedy, this is a bizarre collection of ancient cylinders scattered in their hundreds across the war-scarred countryside of northern Laos’s Xieng Khuang province.
They’re believed to have been created by travelling Indian tribes more than 2000 years ago and, as I look at them for the first time, I can’t help but think they’re an Asian version of Stonehenge – only smaller and with far fewer tourists.
Whereas Stonehenge’s ruins tower above visitors, I’m able to peer into most of the lichen-encrusted jars. I’m hoping to perhaps glimpse a few gilded treasures but I spot little more than spiderwebs, birds’ feathers and rainwater coated in algae. …
The jars’ origins and purposes still puzzle.
Local legend claims they were made of congealed water-buffalo skin so they could store rice and lao-lao (Laos’s rice whisky) for a giant who lived nearby.
French archaeologist Madeleine Colani, visiting in the 1930s, established that most were crafted from sandstone (after all, they weigh up to a tonne each) and were probably used for ancient funeral ceremonies.
Colani found a human-shaped bronzed figure carved into one urn and, nearby, a scattering of tiny stone beads, but the lack of organic materials inside the jars, notably bones, has compounded their enigma.