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Huge Urns Hold a Big Mystery

Thousands of ancient containers are scattered on Laos' Plain of Jars. What once might have been a burial ground is a budding tourist site.

November 06, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

THONG HAI HIN, Laos — The first time Sousath Phetrasy saw the huge stone jars scattered in a grassy field, he was entranced. Carefully avoiding old unexploded bombs in the ground, the Laotian businessman walked among hundreds of the ancient, lichen-covered containers, each one large enough to hold a person. The biggest weighed more than 6 tons.

From that moment in 1990, the jars became his obsession. He quit his state job and moved to northern Laos to be near them. Over the next seven years, he spent his spare time clearing unexploded bombs, grenades and mortar shells -- leftovers from America's 1960s-era "secret war" in Laos -- from three jar fields. His only tools were an old metal detector and a long knife. His chief helper was his young son.

"I wanted to open the mysteries of the jars, the power of the jars, and let people feel that they have come to a holy place," said Sousath, now 43 and the owner of a tourist hotel. "This is the brother of Stonehenge and Easter Island."

Perhaps 2,000 years old, the relics on the plateau known as the Plain of Jars are one of the oldest -- and unexplained -- archeological wonders of Southeast Asia. They have survived looters, the elements and American bombs, but for decades were largely forgotten in the chaos and conflict that swept Laos.

Archeologists say there are thousands of jars in this part of northern Laos. Experts believe that the urns were used in burial rituals, but they know little about the people who made them.

Laos' Communist government reluctantly agreed to Sousath's proposal to open the jar sites to foreigners -- then made him head of the local tourism agency. He built his small hotel in the nearby town of Phonsavan and began giving tours of the fields he helped clear.

Most of the jars are on tranquil, grassy knolls above villages and rice fields. Typically, the knolls have sweeping views of the countryside. Cows sometimes wander among the jars, grazing on the grass.

Today, a few thousand intrepid travelers from around the world make the trek each year to see the jars in this remote province where craters from American bombs still scar the countryside and farmers use old bomb casings to make pigsties and storage sheds.

But even Sousath has misgivings about opening the sites to tourists, who sometimes clamber onto the jars or pick away at the worn, sedimentary stone.

"The jars are holy, but people climb on them," he complained. "People want to damage them. We need to educate them and tell them how to behave."

Concerned for the jars' preservation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is helping the Laotian government prepare an application for World Heritage status for the Plain of Jars. But designation as a protected site -- and U.N. funds for the jars -- is at least three years away.

As part of the application process, an archeological team armed with satellite photos is searching for jars and mapping them. So far, the group has documented more than 300 jar fields scattered across the plain -- 10 times the number previously known.

Richard Engelhardt, a UNESCO archeologist based in Bangkok, Thailand, who is heading the project, said the Plain of Jars is "probably the most important Iron Age site in Southeast Asia."

More than 3,000 jars have been cataloged, he said, and more are being discovered all the time. "Every week, the number goes up," he said. "We haven't counted them all yet."

Most Laotians believe that the urns were made by a 6th century chieftain, Khun Jeuam, to celebrate his victory in battle over a local tyrant. According to the legend, the jars were made from sand, sugar cane and buffalo skin and used to make wine -- much as villagers today brew rice wine in old fuel drums.

The largest jar, at 10 feet tall, is called Jeuam's "victory cup."

Despite the myth's popularity, archeologists say the jars were carved from solid sandstone and limestone centuries before the chieftain's time. The sites, they say, were cemeteries and the urns once held corpses.

Standing among the stone jars, German tourist Markus Koepke could appreciate the appeal of the fable. "It's much happier if you say they were for a party," the 29-year-old economics student said. "But the jars are interesting because we don't understand them."

No bodies have been found in the urns, but traces of human remains have been discovered inside a few, and skeletons have been unearthed nearby.

Archeologists believe that the jars were used to hold bodies for months or years while the remains decomposed. The bones were later removed, cleaned and buried or, in some cases, cremated. Known as secondary burial, the practice is typical of the Bronze and Iron ages and still occurs in the region.

Even so, archeologists are just starting to research the jars, and the most basic questions remain, including how old they are and how the jar-makers transported them miles from the quarries where they were carved.

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