Deep in the mountainous forests of Southeast Asia lies a millennia-old mystery that is only beginning to be unraveled by modern research.
More than 100 mysterious 1,000-year-old massive stone “jars of the dead” have been discovered across 15 sites in Laos. Though it’s believed that they may have once been used to bury the dead, nobody knows for certain their original purpose or anything about the people who once brought them there.
"These new sites have really only been visited by the occasional tiger hunter. Now we've rediscovered them, we're hoping to build a clear picture about this culture and how it disposed of its dead," said PhD student Nicholas Skopal in a statement.
"But why these sites were chosen as the final resting place for the jars is still a mystery. On top of that, we've got no evidence of occupation in this region," added archaeologist Dougald O'Reilly.
Researchers with the Australian National University excavated 137 stone jars in total, along with intricately carved discs placed around them believed to have been used as burial markers. But some of these discs were placed facedown, lending further intrigue to the mystery.
"Decorative carving is relatively rare at the jar sites and we don't know why some discs have animal imagery and others have geometric designs," said O'Reilly.
Also found alongside the jars were Iron Age artifacts such as decorative ceramics, glass beads, iron tools, and other tools used for making clothing.
"Curiously we also found many miniature jars, which look just like the giant jars themselves but made of clay, so we'd love to know why these people represented the same jars in which they placed their dead, in miniature to be buried with their dead," said O'Reilly.
Altogether, the archaeologists note that the discovery leads to a bigger understanding of what they believe are burial jars, adding a bigger distribution range than previously thought.
"We've seen similar megalithic jars in Assam in India and in Sulawesi in Indonesia so we'd like to investigate possible connections in prehistory between these disparate regions,” said O’Reilly.
It’s believed that jar burial was practiced as early as 900 BCE and lasted until the 17th century CE. Evidence of the burials has been found across the eastern part of the world, from India and Indonesia to Lebanon, the Philippines, and Egypt. The dead would be buried in a flexed position on their side in large stone or clay jars alongside other goods. Though specific practices varied from culture to culture, it is generally believed that jar burials were used as a form of secondary burial. In many ancient cultures, death was seen as a gradual transition from the living to the dead. To honor this tradition, bodies of the deceased would be laid out shortly after death so that family members could observe the decomposition process. After a certain amount of time, the body would then be interred into a jar and buried in the Earth.