Huge Urns Hold a Big Mystery

Times Staff Writer

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.

"We know so little about them," said Pamela Rogers, a Hong Kong-based archeology consultant who is assisting UNESCO on the project. "We have no precise dating. We don't have any idea of the people's ethnicity or race or linguistic base. This is just the beginning."

A French archeologist named Madeleine Colani first brought the jars to the world's attention in the mid-1930s. She discovered and documented hundreds of them and theorized that they were used in burials. She also reported finding bronze and iron tools, carnelian beads and a bronze figure, but the relics have since been lost or stolen.

Engelhardt, the U.N. archeologist, says the jars lie along an ancient road linking the Red River Delta of North Vietnam with southern India. Megaliths that may have been made by the same people have been found along the route as far as Bangladesh.

The presence of unexploded bombs has prevented excavation around most of the jars, and experts have had trouble dating the few bones and tools discovered. Half a dozen small quarries with broken jars have been found miles away in the mountains, suggesting that the urns were carved first and then moved, perhaps dragged by elephants.

Today, only the three sites that Sousath helped clear are open to the public. At the other locations, unexploded bombs pose a continuing threat.

The Plain of Jars was a major battleground in the 1960s when Communist Lao forces and North Vietnamese troops tried to take northern Laos. Unwilling to commit U.S. soldiers, Washington launched a covert paramilitary campaign that was run by the CIA and fought by Hmong mountain tribesmen and Thai troops. The war was well known in Laos but largely kept secret from the American public.

The United States bombed Laos relentlessly in an effort to drive back the Communists. Between 1964 and 1973, American warplanes dropped more bombs on Laos than fell on Germany during World War II.

As many as 20% of the bombs did not explode. Among the deadliest are antipersonnel cluster bombs that are designed to lie in wait, even for decades, for someone to step on them.

Sousath estimates that he cleared 80% of the bombs from the three jar fields -- carting away 3 tons of ordnance. Government-paid de-miners cleared the rest.

On the dining room wall of his modest Maly Hotel, he has mounted an impressive collection of munitions he uncovered and disarmed, including hand grenades, cluster bombs and mortar shells.

Animated and energetic, Sousath is unusually outspoken in this tightly controlled country. A bit pudgy, he often wears military-style camouflage. A raconteur who speaks at least four languages, he tells of an unusual childhood that prepared him for his preoccupation with the jars.

He grew up in a family of privilege. His father was a top figure in the Laotian government and served at one point as ambassador to the Soviet Union.

When Sousath was 10, his family sent him to China so he would be safe from the war. But Sousath hated his school, ran away and crossed back into Laos. Stranded near the northern border, he said, he lived on his own in caves for the next five years. To survive, he said, he taught himself how to dismantle live American bombs and use the explosives to catch fish and game.

Years later, a munitions expert showed him how the bombs were designed and Sousath realized how lucky he had been.

Reunited with his family at the end of the war, he eventually studied economics in Germany and, among other things, worked as a disc jockey in Vientiane, the capital.

Sousath learned of the jars during a business trip to Phonsavan. His colleagues took him to see the jars and Sousath, one of the few Laotians to have traveled overseas, immediately recognized their potential. "The jars had been left behind without any care," he recalled. "I said, 'Wow, this is unusual. People would pay money to see this.' "

Sousath knows that it was crazy to quit his job with the state fuel company to look after the jars, and even crazier to wander among them digging up live bombs with his son, Tanud, now 21. But in the jar fields he found what had been missing all his life: a sense of purpose.

"I think it's because I felt lost during the war," Sousath said. "I felt lost in this battlefield. I wanted to gain something, some business here, some benefit."

But Phonsavan, the rundown capital of Xieng Khuang province, is a lonely, dusty town, and the tourist business he hoped for has never taken off. Only 6,000 tourists come to see the jars each year, Sousath said. Often, there are only a few guests staying at his hotel.

Still, it's easy to see why Sousath found the jars so fascinating.

At Thong Hai Hin, nine miles southwest of Phonsavan, dozens of the huge stone urns are strewn around the top of a grassy knoll, and 200 more are scattered in a field below.

Some are cracked or shattered, but scores remain intact, worn by the wind and rain but otherwise in good condition. The faint form of an ancient figure can be seen carved on the side of one jar. One has a stone lid, and perhaps they all once did because lid pieces lie on the ground. Now the jars collect stagnant water and bits of trash. Trees grow in some like potted plants, sometimes becoming so large that they crack the stone.

Tourists are free to wander around and climb on the jars. During a recent visit, one sightseer broke off a small piece of jar to see what it was made of, crumbling the soft sandstone between his fingers. Some of the smaller jars have been stolen.

Engelhardt said UNESCO was proposing village-based management of the sites that would provide jobs for residents while enlisting them to look after the jars. Most likely, the jars would be roped off to keep visitors from harming them.

"The biggest threat to the jars is the use of the site as a recreational facility," he said. "It's just the reality of our modern world. We have to protect them."

Sousath, who sits on the advisory board of the committee preparing the World Heritage application, hopes someday to make a documentary film about the jars and their links to other Asian stone-carving cultures. He believes that there are more than 10,000 jars, many of them hidden untouched in the jungle, and that they represent the jar-makers' desire to send their spirits to the other side of the world.

"The people who made the jars were very clever," he said. "The jars are very important, but we've lost the secret."

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