Plain of jars and bombs

The Xiangkhoang Plateau in northern Laos is covered in thousands of prehistoric burial jars… and many more unexploded bombs.

Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars, Xiangkhoang Plateau, Laos
Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I am a sucker for megaliths and other prehistoric archaeological sites. I mentioned a while ago that I once walked across the Maltese island Gozo to see Ġgantija (one of the oldest megalithic sites in Europe); I also payed a local tour guide to give me a lift to Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, and then convince security to open the dig site so I could have a look around. Well, in northern Laos there is another series of archaeological sites of immense international significance – but you’re risking your life if you visit them.

Around three thousand years ago (give or take a few centuries), the residents of Xiangkhoang Plateau began carving huge ceremonial jars. These jars are now scattered around multiple different sites across the plain, earning the area its nickname: the Plain of Jars. They are huge, up to two and a half metres tall, and some sites have hundreds of them.

Hmong among the Plain of Jars jars
Oliver Spalt, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The jars most likely all used to have lids, although only a few stone ones still exist today. And, based on the remains found within, they were probably used for burials. A fresh body was left in a jar to decompose, then removed and cremated, and finally returned to a jar for permanent interment.

A significant archaeological treasure like this would normally make such an area into a haven for researchers and tourists. There’s a complication, however. The Xiangkhoang Plateau is one of the most bombed places on Earth.

Laos was officially neutral during the Vietnam War. That didn’t stop North Vietnam and the United States engaging in the so-called “Secret War” for dominance of this strategically significant area. As part of that campaign, the US air forces dropped a lot of bombs on Laos. And by a lot, I mean more than all the bombs dropped in World War II. And these were no ordinary bombs. They were cluster bombs, made of “bomblets” that could each fit in your hand. Or explode in your hand. Laotians continue to be killed by these bombs today, more than fifty years after the bombing ended.

So, in addition to huge stone funerary jars of ancient provenance, the Plain of Jars is covered in millions of tiny unexploded bombs.

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