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Plain of Jars Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Karen J. Coates

The explosive implications of archaeology at Laos' most puzzling site

Seng Phon, a technician with the Mines Advisory Group, uses a metal detector to search for buried bombs in the Site 3 parking lot; Julie Van Den Bergh displays one of two clay urns excavated from Site 1; a worker with the UNESCO-Lao Plain of Jars Project and a local villager record a jar near Ban Phakeo village. (Jerry Redfern)

I'm following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos' remote Xieng Khouang Province. We're inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.

Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a "secret war" against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze--and to archaeologists.

The jars are huge, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing 14 tons. Most are carved of sandstone, others of granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Some are round, others angular, and a few have disks that appear to be lids. Tools and human remains found inside and around the jars suggest their use and manufacture spanned centuries. The bulk of material dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800, and additional carbon dates are expected this summer.

Archaeologists are certain the Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia's most important archaeological sites--but it is one with more questions than answers.

Karen Coates is author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America