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Mysterious ‘plain of jars’ of Laos may be home to thousands of dead babies

Remains of dead infants and babies who lived 1,100 years ago found buried in Laos add more evidence that the site was used as an ancient cemetery, experts say.

Archaeologists have long studied the landlocked southeastern Asian country’s ‘plain of jars’ to try an unlock the secrets of what it was used for. 

Cup-like carved stones – which vary in size, reaching up to 10 feet (three metres) in height and two tons in weight –  dot the landscape, some with lids.

French geologist Madeleine Colani excavated a cave at the site in the early 1930s and suggested that it was used as a crematorium.

Consensus has built around the idea that the location, which does not appear to have been lived in, was used as some sort of funerary site.

Experts say they plan to excavate another site in the region and continue to study jars already uncovered to learn more about the people who placed them there.  

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Remains of dead infants and babies who lived 1,100 years ago found buried in Laos add more evidence that the site was used as an ancient cemetery, experts say. Pictured: New jars found at the latest dig site

Remains of dead infants and babies who lived 1,100 years ago found buried in Laos add more evidence that the site was used as an ancient cemetery, experts say. Pictured: New jars found at the latest dig site

Archaeologists have long studied the landlocked southeastern Asian country's 'plain of jars' to try an unlock the secrets of what it was used for. Pictured: A burial discovered at the new dig site

Archaeologists have long studied the landlocked southeastern Asian country’s ‘plain of jars’ to try an unlock the secrets of what it was used for. Pictured: A burial discovered at the new dig site

WHAT IS THE ‘PLAIN OF JARS?’ 

Carved from huge blocks of sandstone and limestone, the jars on the Xieng Khouang plateau date from 500 BC to 500 AD.

They appear to have been quarried from several areas in the Xieng Kouang foothills before being spread over more than 90 sites, numbering from just a handful in some areas to hundreds in others.

Each has a cylindrical shape with the bottom wider than the top and most have lip rims, raising suspicions that the jars originally had lids.

However, few stone lids have ever been found at the sites.

Little is known about how the jars were created but some archaeologists speculate that the people who made them used iron chisels to carve them.

Just one jar has been found to have been decorated with a human ‘frogman’ relief carved on the exterior.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne who were excavating Site 1 near Ban Nahoung have now published their findings.

This one area contains holds nearly 400 jars, suggesting there may be thousands more spread across the entire site.

Of 18 individuals found inside burial jars during the new dig, more than 60 per cent were infants or babies, almost half of which had died at the foetal stage or in early infancy.

Dental enamel hypoplasia, a defect in tooth enamel that only occurs while teeth are still developing, was also detected in four of the foetal remains.

This disturbance to the normal could suggest that famine or disease may have ravaged the area, experts suggest, in between the 10th and 13th centuries AD.

This places the majority infant burial site centuries later than other parts of the site, with radiocarbon dating estimates previously ranging from between from 8200 BC to 1200 AD.

Glass beads, a pendant, ceramic vessels and ear discs – similar to those found at other previous sites – were also uncovered. 

‘From our excavations at Site 1, we have identified three types of mortuary ritual practice: secondary burial of human bone, secondary burial of human remains in buried ceramic jars and, for the first time, a primary burial of two individuals,’ study author Louise Shewan told IFL Science.

‘Site 1 is of major ritual significance and has been for a very long time. We, however, know very little about the culture that created the jars and this is one of our main research interests.

‘We do not as yet know when the jars were placed on the landscape and if indeed the burials around them are contemporaneous with the jars or how they are related to each other.’ 

Cup-like carved stones - which vary in size, reaching up to 10 feet (three metres) in height and two tons in weight - dot the landscape, some with lids. Pictured: A perforated slab of limestone uncovered at the new dig site

Cup-like carved stones – which vary in size, reaching up to 10 feet (three metres) in height and two tons in weight – dot the landscape, some with lids. Pictured: A perforated slab of limestone uncovered at the new dig site

Consensus has built around the idea that the location, which does not appear to have been lived in, was used as some sort of funerary site. Pictured: Part of the new dig site cleared of grass ready for work

Consensus has built around the idea that the location, which does not appear to have been lived in, was used as some sort of funerary site. Pictured: Part of the new dig site cleared of grass ready for work

Researchers from the University of Melbourne who were excavating Site 1 near Ban Nahoung have now published their findings. Pictured: A map of the new excavation site

Researchers from the University of Melbourne who were excavating Site 1 near Ban Nahoung have now published their findings. Pictured: A map of the new excavation site

Laos’ jars of the dead remain one of archaeology’s most intriguing puzzles. The mysterious stone jars are dotted across thousands of square miles of the Xieng Khouang plateau, which has become known as the ‘Plain of Jars’. 

Some jars were buried with decorated stone discs, mysterious smaller jars made of clay and a variety of more conventional stone age artefacts like beads and jewellery 

Exactly how the jars were used is unknown but local myths claim they were goblets once used by a drunk horde of giants. 

Researchers suggest that they served as ‘burial urns’ for storing human remains, which the latest find would seem to support. 

Another theory suggests that the jars were made to capture monsoonal rainwater for later boiling and use by caravans passing through the region. 

Laos' jars of the dead remain one of archaeology's most intriguing puzzles. The mysterious stone jars (pictured) are dotted across thousands of square miles of the Xieng Khouang plateau, which has become known as the 'Plain of Jars'

Laos’ jars of the dead remain one of archaeology’s most intriguing puzzles. The mysterious stone jars (pictured) are dotted across thousands of square miles of the Xieng Khouang plateau, which has become known as the ‘Plain of Jars’

Some jars were buried with decorated stone discs, mysterious smaller jars made of clay and a variety of more conventional stone age artefacts like beads and jewellery

Some jars were buried with decorated stone discs, mysterious smaller jars made of clay and a variety of more conventional stone age artefacts like beads and jewellery 

Researchers led from the Australian National University found new jar sites in a remote and mountainous forest during a four-year survey that began in 2015

Researchers led from the Australian National University found new jar sites in a remote and mountainous forest during a four-year survey that began in 2015

Archaeologists Dougald O’Reilly and Nicholas Skopal from the Australian National University and colleagues announced in May that they had catalogued 137 new jars.

They were found across 15 freshly-identified sites – in remote and mountainous forest – and  show that the ancient burial practices associated with the jars ‘were more widespread than previously thought,’ according to Dr O’Reilly.

Some of the new jars were found accompanied by beautifully-carved discs, which researchers believe may be a form of burial marker.

The carved images on the discs include animals, human figures and patterns of concentric circles. All of these discs were buried with their decorated sides positioned face-down. 

Exactly how the jars were used is unknown but local myths claim they were goblets once used by a drunk horde of giants. French geologist Madeleine Colani excavated a cave at the site in the early 1930s and suggested that it was used as a crematorium

Exactly how the jars were used is unknown but local myths claim they were goblets once used by a drunk horde of giants. French geologist Madeleine Colani excavated a cave at the site in the early 1930s and suggested that it was used as a crematorium

Researchers suggest that they served as 'burial urns' for storing human remains, which the latest find would seem to support.  Another theory suggests that the jars were made to capture monsoonal rainwater for later boiling and use by caravans passing through the region

Researchers suggest that they served as ‘burial urns’ for storing human remains, which the latest find would seem to support.  Another theory suggests that the jars were made to capture monsoonal rainwater for later boiling and use by caravans passing through the region

Experts say they plan to excavate another site in the region and continue to study jars already uncovered to learn more about the people who placed them there

Experts say they plan to excavate another site in the region and continue to study jars already uncovered to learn more about the people who placed them there

The stone jars appear to have been quarried from several areas in the Xieng Kouang foothills before being spread over more than 90 sites, numbering from just a handful in some areas to hundreds in others.

Each has a cylindrical shape with the bottom wider than the top and most have lip rims, raising suspicions that the jars originally had lids. However, few stone lids have ever been found at the sites.

Little is known about how the jars were created but some archaeologists speculate that the people who made them used iron chisels to carve them. 

Just one jar has been found to have been decorated with a human ‘frogman’ relief carved on the exterior.

The full findings of the most recent study were published in the journal Antiquity

Laos' abiding archaeological enigma has deepened with the discovery of 137 new stone 'jars of the dead' that date back to around a thousand years ago

Laos’ abiding archaeological enigma has deepened with the discovery of 137 new stone ‘jars of the dead’ that date back to around a thousand years ago

Dotted across thousands of square kilometres of the Xieng Khouang plateau, which has become known as the 'Plain of Jars', the mysterious stone jars are giant, with some standing up to 10 feet (three metres) in height

Dotted across thousands of square kilometres of the Xieng Khouang plateau, which has become known as the ‘Plain of Jars’, the mysterious stone jars are giant, with some standing up to 10 feet (three metres) in height

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