Were Laos' Huge Stone Jars Used to Decompose Bodies?

February find provides a new clue
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 10, 2016 10:04 AM CDT
Were Laos' Huge Stone Jars Used to Decompose Bodies?
One of the stone vessels at the Plain of Jars.   (Wikimedia Commons, Oliver Spalt)

The discovery in February of an ancient burial site could provide a clue for unraveling the mystery of the Plain of Jars—a region in central Laos that is littered with thousands of stone jars, Live Science reports. There are more than 90 jar sites (some with up to 400 of the stone vessels) scattered over hundreds of square miles, a region that includes foothills, forests, and valleys. The stone jars range in size from about 6 feet to 10 feet in height, weigh up to 10 tons, and are so big in diameter that "you couldn't get your arms around most of them," Australian National University researcher Dougald O'Reilly says. In the first major study of the area since the 1930s, according to a press release, researchers unearthed human remains estimated to be 2,500 years old.

"The skeletons uncovered in this new work attest to the cemetery function," Lia Genovese, who has researched the site, but wasn't involved in the latest study, tells the Christian Science Monitor. But, she adds, "The mystery still remains as to the function of the stone jars." One theory is that the jars were used to decompose bodies, the bones of which were later buried. O'Reilly says researchers discovered three types of burials at Jar Site 1, including pits full of bones covered with a limestone block, bones placed in ceramic vessels, and "for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where the body is placed in a grave." In that burial, the cranial bones of a child were found with an adult skeleton, which had a quartz stone with a hole covering the head. Researchers plan on continuing their work in the Plain of Jars for five years, as the government of Laos works to have the site listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (An author has a gruesome theory about the preserved human remains found in bogs.)

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