Mysterious fields of stone jars named a World Heritage site

Laos Plain of Jars
The Laos Plain of Jars has now been listed as a World Heritage site. Image: Getty Images

Research findings by archaeological scientists from the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, James Cook University and the Lao Department of Heritage have helped ensure the Laos Plain of Jars has at last been included on the World Heritage List.

UNESCO made the announcement over the weekend following a meeting of the 43rd World Heritage Committee meeting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

The campaign to protect and develop the vast historical and archaeological Laos Plain of Jars and nominate the site for World Heritage inscription started in 1998, when the Laos government and UNESCO officially committed to safeguarding the area known as the Xieng Khouang plateau, where thousands of the stone jars sit.

The jars, some of them 20 tonnes heavy, are thought to be the relics of an ancient civilisation, possibly 2500 years old, and part of a complex burial ritual.

Dr Louise Shewan, a Faculty of Science Centenary Fellow in the School of Earth Sciences, says the World Heritage inscription recognises the tremendous amount of work done by Lao heritage officials and other researchers.

The sites were first researched by Madeleine Colani, a French archaeologist who studied the Plain of Jars in the 1930s. Dr Colani’s work was followed by limited excavations by Lao and Japanese archaeologists and most recently scientists from Australia and New Zealand.

“The World Heritage listing of the Lao megalithic jar sites will bring this unique cultural landscape to global awareness, leading to greater conservation of the sites and will heighten the need to understand more about the culture that created the sites,”  Dr Shewan said.

Dr Shewan co-leads a team with Associate Professor Dougald O’Reilly from ANU, and Dr Thonglith Luangkoth from the Lao Department of Heritage, that has been working in Laos since 2016. The research is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Each field season Dr Shewan and her fellow researchers spend weeks mapping and excavating jar sites, then months analysing samples and data, including human remains and the enamel of teeth found around the jars. Much of this work is done in the research labs in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

The work is challenging as much of the Xieng Khouang province’s total land area has unexploded military ordnance dropped by the United States during the conflict in Indo-China.

In February this year, the group made a huge breakthrough when team members, co-supervised PhD student, Nick Skopal and Lao archaeologist Souliya Bounxayhip, discovered 15 unknown sites boasting more than 100 jars between them.

“The discovery of new jar sites increases our knowledge about the jars and the extent of this rich cultural practice,” Dr Shewan said.

ANU Associate Professor Dougald O’Reilly added: “We all feel proud to have played even a minor role in the successful inscription of the Plain of Jars as World Heritage.”