By Irene Butler – Kamloops This Week
Published: March 24, 2011 12:00 PM
Updated: March 24, 2011 12:18 PM
Have you ever seen something so bizarre as to defy logic?
As my eyes sweep over the vast array of pre-historic stone jars of mammoth proportions — there it is.
A mind-boggling enigma.
What ancient peoples fashioned these vessels and for what purpose?
I am rendered speechless as I run my hand over the rough charcoal-coloured mottled surface of the largest, standing three metres high and two metres in diameter and estimated to weigh a tonne.
Our guide, Yang, my husband Rick and I are at Site One of what is known as The Plain of Jars, near the town of Phonsavan in central Laos.
This site is strewn with 250 jars.
There are 60 sites containing 2,000 jars.
Of these, five have been open to the public for a little over a decade.
We are to visit the three sites in close-enough proximity to be seen in one day.
As we come upon the cluster of 90 jars at Site Two, Yang points out how these are taller and their shape more conical.
Circular stone discs lie near some of the jars.
“These are grave markers,” says Yang, “and not lids, as sometimes suggested. Since lids for the jars are not found, it is believed they were made of perishable materials.”
Archaeological evidence suggests the jars are funerary urns carved by Iron Age peoples more than 2,000 years ago.
The first systematic studies were undertaken by Madeline Colani in the 1930s.
Excavations by Lao and Japanese archaeologists in the early 1990s reinforce this theory, with the discovery of human remains, tools and ceramics that, with carbon-dating tests, were found to span generations from 800 BCE to 200 BCE.
The origin of the builders remains unknown.
Local legends claim a different purpose for the jars.
According to the most popular, the ancient King Khun Cheung fought a long battle against a formidable enemy and created the vessels to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao (rice wine) to celebrate his victory.
A two-kilometre walk through rice fields, followed by an upward climb, brings us to Site Three, the most picturesque.
On the crest of a hill, trees and shrubs mingle with 150 of the massive vessels and a patchwork quilt of green fields stretch out below until met by the azure sky.
The serene beauty of the Plain of Jars simultaneously envelops the tragic history of Laos.
The British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has signs posted at the sites warning visitors to stay within the stone markers along the paths so as to not accidentally set off a unexploded ordinance (UXO).
At the MAG office in Phonsavan, we learned that, during the height of the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1973, America bombarded Laos with two-million tons of bombs (more than were pummelled on Germany and Japan combined during the Second World War).
Thirty per cent of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving the country littered with unexploded ordinance.
Since 1973, thousands have been killed or injured and the incidence of accidentally setting off a unexploded ordinance continues at a rate of almost one a day, particularly the cluster-bomb explosive fragments the locals call “bombies.”
MAG reports 175 UXO have been cleared from the Jar Sites that are open to the public, as well as 1,444 from surrounding villages.
They have destroyed a total of 98,061 UXO since they began clearing in 1994.
About half the victims are children who find the small ball-shaped cluster munitions while playing near their homes in rural communities.
Also at high risk are farmers as the rainy season often washes bombies down from the hills.
In Phonsavon, bomb casings decorate the restaurants and hotels as planters or entry partitions.
The walls inside the Maly Guesthouse, where we stayed, are studded with cluster-bomb shells and other war material.
On our visit to a village, the ubiquitous bomb casings (some three metres long) have been put to use in building water buffalo-feeding troughs, fences and pigsties.
We come away, our minds shrouded in the mystery of the strange monolithic relics and saddened by this beautiful country’s legacy of war.
The increasing number of travellers to the Plain of Jars, now a UNESCO site, will hopefully bring about the funding needed to shorten the 100 years MAG estimates it will take to make Loa safe.
Perhaps this is a new purpose for the dynamic footprints of an ancient people.