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Associate Professor Dougald O’Reilly, 21 November 2018

DUNCAN WRIGHT: Thank you very much. And thank you to the National Museum for collaborating on what — we've had some really wonderful lectures over the last 12 months. This is the final lecture of the year. But fear not, we will be back again in probably February or March next year, depending on how many speakers we get. So we hope that you will join us for for those as well. Okay, so I am very happy to introduce my colleague, Associate Professor Dougald O'Reilly. Dougald works at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at ANU. He is also the founder and treasurer of a very excellent NGO heritage watch and has been involved in a whole bunch of really fantastic initiatives involving protection of heritage in this region, through everything from apps — the Angkor app that he's got going, which even has the address written on beer mats, I believe, which is excellent. So, I hand you over to our last speaker of the CAS year. Thank you very much, Dougald.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Good evening everybody and thank you so much for inviting me to the Archaeological Society and the Museum as well. So as you can see tonight I'm going to be talking about the Plain of Jars archaeological research project. So this is a collaborative effort that involves a range of scholars from a lot of different fields, from geographical information systems and human osteology, isotopic analysis, ceramics studies, geology and, of course, archaeology. We also have, as you can see from the first slide here, a number of institutions involved from Laos, our gracious hosts there, Australia, New Zealand, and also involvement of the Polish university, and the research is funded by the Australian Research Council.

So in today's lecture what I'm going to do is introduce the aims of the project, followed by the locations of the sites that we've been investigating in Laos. I'll briefly outline the history of work in some of the rather peculiar challenges of working in a place like Laos. Then I'll go on to discuss our recent research undertaken in the region, and then turn to our future research, and then talk about the megalithic jars of Laos in a broader context.

We have a lot of aims for our project, and I won't go through them all, but in a condensed form you can see them here. What we hope to do is to document the mortuary practices and try to build a demographic profile of the mortuary population of people who are buried at these megalithic jar sites. We also want to try to understand who created these sites, because this is at the present moment unknown. We don't know who made them; we don't know where they lived. We also want to try to understand the role of these people in the regional exchange networks and, of course, just to clarify what these megalithic sites are all about. What was their real purpose? There's a lot of speculation.

So these are the overall aims of our research. So where are we talking about? Well, we're in Laos, in a province called Xiangkhoang, which is a fairly large province about 16,000 square kilometres. And it's quite high elevation as well. So I have to admit when I first arrived in Laos, having spent most of my time working in Thailand and Cambodia, I was shocked at the temperatures in January and February. You really do need a down puffer jacket.

A lot of these sites are at high elevation and it's actually a very wealthy province in many ways. The geology has sandstone and limestone and conglomerate and silt stone, but it's also very rich in copper and ore. In fact there's a lot of mining activity taking place in Xiangkhoang right now. And that also probably informs the prehistoric contexts as well. So in 2016 our research was focused at a site called Site 1, which is very close to the provincial capital of Xiangkhoang, which is called Phonsavan. Then in 2017 we returned to work at another site that's named Site 52, which was only discovered in 2005, and it's a large site, as you'll see as we go through the lecture.

Now a recent review of sites accounted for over 120 megalithic jar sites in Laos. So most of these are in Xiangkhoang province but some are in the neighbouring province of Louangphabang. So on this map [indicates slide] you can see there's different coloured dots. The sites that are coloured green are sites that were discovered in the 1930s by Madeline Killarney. The red dots are sites that were documented by a UNESCO survey and then the black dots there are sites that were recently discovered during the research. So there's a widespread of sites, and there you can see perhaps concentrated around these plateaus there the wider areas on that map.

Now the United States, as you probably know, illegally bombed Loas during the Secret War in an effort to thwart the flow of men and munitions from North Vietnam to South Vietnam and the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through what was neutral Laos, and of course was heavily targeted by US bombing missions.

So the data that you can see on the screen here was culled from a database of bombing missions, both high explosive munitions and also very deadly cluster munitions. If you look at this data the dates, the payload, the pilots' names are all recorded on these Excel spreadsheets. As you can see from the slide about 30 per cent of these cluster munitions remain unexploded. So these are tennis ball-sized objects that litter the ground all over Laos and they're very dangerous, obviously for children who pick them up and play with them, but they also have an effect or impact on our ability to undertake archaeological research.

Now I'll just take you to Site 1 [shows slide]. So this is an aerial movie of Site 1, near Phonsavan, where we undertook our recent research. So in this movie you can see we're flying over the large group of jars, which is group two on the overlay map there [points to slide], and you can note the excavations that we're doing. And this flies up towards group three. You can note also the bomb craters there. So there was a Laotian unit here that was heavily bombed by the US, moving up the hill towards groups four and five, and if you look carefully you can see a tank scrape from the Laotian or Vietnamese forces that were there. The video will come around in a second.

I just want you to note that large limestone feature [indicates slide]. That's a cave which Madeline Killarney believed to be a crematorium. There are three chimney holes in the top of that and then off in the distance you can see the most spectacular grouping of jars at this site — that's group one — has the largest and most beautiful jars. I'll show you an example of those in a minute. So this site has been cleared, by the way, of UXO. So they dug down to depths of a metre and about 800 items were discovered and destroyed when the mine action group did their clearance work there.

Now in terms of past research the jar sites were first described by a British individual named James McCarthy back in 1884. Then, of course, the French became heavily involved in Laos as it became a protectorate and they sent a mission to northern parts of Central Laos in 1890. Further exploratory missions, such as this one by Pavey in 1919, were undertaken but largely these jars were not seen to be very important or interesting to the colonial powers. But the first archaeological research was done by this woman [points to slide], Madeline Killarney, and her intrepid sister.

So Killarney was actually trained as a geologist in France and then she was sent out to the colonies and she was working in Vietnam for the école Francaise extreme Orient. Her first mission to Laos was in 1931 when she was 65 years old. She actually a very well-respected archaeologist. She's responsible for naming the whole Albanian culture which stretches across South-East Asia. So she discovered that in the Hoa binh province in Vietnam. After the end of her research in Laos, she published a book that you can see on the screen there, which is a massive tome. It's two volumes published in 1935 that documents not only the jar sites in Laos but also standing Shist menhirs here that are found there as well.

So the menhirs are to the north of Xiangkhoang in the adjacent province. So this is just an image of these menhir [indicates slide]. So you can see the standing Shist stones in the back of the photograph there. Now Killarney believed that these menhirs actually were older than the jars. So she thought they dated to the Bronze Age but she didn't have the advantage of radiocarbon dating. So this date still stands and no further research has been done, nor any dating has been done, on these site. So this is more really juicy low hanging fruit for an archaeologist, if you're interested in that.

But in this photograph not only should you note those very large Shist standing stones, but please take note of those very substantial discs in the foreground, because they do pop up again later. Now since the time of Madeleine Killarney there have been a number of smaller projects that have focused on the jar sites in Laos and most of the work has been done at Site 1. So we have researchers like this Japanese scholar, EG Nita, who excavated the site in 1994 and my friend and colleague, [inaudible] Dee, who actually did his PhD at the ANU with Peter Bellwood, worked in in the later 1990s. And I should add these gentlemen are also both intrepid because they dug this site before it was de-mined or cleared of UXO. So quite dangerous, in fact.

More recently another friend and colleague, Julie Van Den Bergh, did a major survey and some rescue excavations. So Julie's the one that was in charge of the UNESCO team that discovered most of the known sites today. Most recently Leah Jenna Vaizey has produced a PhD thesis on the jars of Laos and done some work on morphology, as you can see from this slide. So she's identified six rim styles that are used across all of the sites in Central Laos.

Now probably the first thing people wonder about when they see these megaliths is what are they for. So this is something that has been obviously speculated about quite widely. And there are a number of possibilities and these include the internment for human remains. So the dead, perhaps, were placed inside the jars.

Others have suggested that these were used for rotting bodies until all the flesh was decayed, and then the bones would have been removed and buried elsewhere. Others have said, 'No no. These are receptacles for commemorative belongings of the dead.' And the dead would be buried beside them and all of the bounty and the riches would be placed inside the jars. And of course local legends are also widely spread so that many of the Laos talk about these being used for brewing rice alcohol, or being used by giants as cups for rice alcohol.

So, a lot of different ideas and explanations about the jars. But there are problems with all of these explanations. So many of the jars are of course very big. They're big enough to certainly hold human remains. Indeed, as you can see from these photographs taken by Killarney, large enough to hold many, many people in fact, but other jars have very small cavities, like this one that you can see here — definitely not large enough to hold a corpse either for burial purposes or disposal purposes or for deflushing purposes. So it's a little bit of an enigma still.

Another interesting thing about these sites is it's not only jars. We also find evidence for discs. So these are most commonly made out of sandstone. And often they are decorated but also equally often they are plain. So these have been also explained in a number of different ways and perhaps the easiest conclusion to jump to is that they were lids for these jars, but Killarney when she worked — and being the earliest archaeologist probably is the freshest perspective — noted that she never found the discs ever sealing one of the jars at these sites.

The other thing that she noted is that there are actually far more jars than there are discs. So some of the jars wouldn't have had lids. Indeed, she thought that the jars probably, if they did have lids, had lids that were made out of organic materials, such as wood. We do have sandstone discs found by Killarney that we're sealing ceramic jars that were underground, but never found on the megalithic jars. And as as I've said here, there's a number of different disc types. [indicates slide] So this is again illustration from Killarney's magnificent work. So she describes mushroom-shaped discs, pommel discs, that you can see there. Sometimes they have a pommel on either side, and also discs with animals carved on them. Killarney describe these as macaque carvings on top of the discs, and also, in some cases, humans have been carved onto these lids.

Now, I have said that there aren't any lids for the jars, so I should sort of qualify that. At Site 52 it does appear that some of the jars had lids. As you can see, that one that Julie Van Den Bergh is measuring there has a lip that very easily fits. And when we did our research there, this was quite common. There are jar lids at Site 52, carved for purpose.

So let's turn to some of the research we did in 2016. So in February 2016 we began our work at a site called Ban Hua Hin, or more commonly known as Site 1. So this is the largest jar site and probably the most frequently visited in terms of tourism. So our team, led by myself, Louise Shewin and Dr Tom Lewincott began our research there.

So what we did was first of all to do a survey of the site. So each of the stone jars — the sites got lots of boulders on it as well — had to be geolocated and photographed. So the jars at Site 1 were all measured. And the details on the morphology and the stone type et cetera were recorded. So all of this data will go into a giant database that of course will help with the interpretation of the data. And I've seen a couple of my PhD students here who will be using this data to complete their theses. And of course also it will be very useful to the lab because these sites are, hopefully next year — touch wood — going to be inscribed as world heritage.

So this is just a slide showing the kind of information that we gathered on each disc as well as of course the geolocation of these things. We also did quite a bit of photoagrammetry, so the data captured in drone videos, and also 3D imaging, of each of the pits that we excavated were put into a computing unit at Monash called the Cave 2 Simulator. So this is an amazing facility. It's a big room — almost 360 degrees of these high-definition monitors, and you can see [points to slide] you can put on 3D glasses with a little device that actually allows you to walk through the 3D environment, but it also is sort of useful because you can virtually re-excavate the site this way. So every spit was recorded in three dimensions and you can go backward or forward as you like.

So this was a pilot grant that was awarded to my colleague Louise Shewan for processing this data in the cave too. And also of course you can use this photogrammetry to record the jars as well, and this is really useful for post-field analysis and also, of course, for future monitoring of the heritage assets in Laos so that the Laos authorities can use this technology to see if there's damage or changes to the jars. And using this software you can do things like calculate the volume or the weight of individual jars, et cetera.

So this is just a low resolution example of one of these jars which is about probably a little over two metres in height and well over 20 tonnes in weight. One other thing on this photograph that you should note is that big boulder beside the jar. So this is one of these quartz-rich boulders that litter the area of Site 1.

So let's turn to the actual digging, the excavations. We, as I said, started in February 2016 and this is just an overhead shot of Site 1, with Unit 1 partially backfilled and another of the smaller units, Unit 3, over there. But we selected Unit 1 because it had a sort of conglomeration of different features. So we found that there was a large number of large stone jars, actually. There's also a sandstone disc. And of course one of these quartz-rich boulders, which according to previous research of course were potential burial markers.

So we excavated a three-by-three metre unit with a little bit of extensions on the sides to investigate these features. So, about 20 centimetres down we discovered a layer of sandstone chips. So these will be analysed in the near future to see if they are actually related to the jar, or they're unrelated and were brought in from elsewhere. It's possible that these represent some kind of finishing of the jars in situ. So I'll tell you about where the jars come from, but they don't originate at Site 1. But they may have been brought in as sort of rough outs and then finished on site.

So that pavement from the previous slide can be seen intruding into the main unit here — you can see the text in white — and also we moved that large sandstone disc that you can see in the rear of the unit there and excavated underneath it. So once we were able to lift it, which was no small task, we found some very interesting finds. So, indeed, right underneath that disc was this mortuary context. Overall we found three mortuary contexts in Unit 1 and one burial was underneath this sandstone disc.

So there's no evidence for occupation material at this site at all. And there is in fact quite a lot of overburden at the site, so it's been abandoned for quite some time. But here in this photograph you can see there's this incredibly bright white limestone and then associated with that these human bones — it's not a complete skeleton but it's a bundle of pieces of long bone from a human being.

So beneath the pavement of sandstone chips that I mentioned was another burial. And again you can see these limestone boulders sticking out of the bark, or wall, of the excavation unit there. So as Killarney noted in her excavations, nothing was found underneath the megalithic jars in terms of human remains. But if you do look in the far right-hand side of that slide you can see there's a boulder there, and that's right at ground level in the prehistoric period, or at least the period when the jar was placed. So I'm guessing that that might have been put in as a sort of a shiv to balance this bar.

Also in this unit, as you can see from the text on the slide, we had one burial that was associated with one of these quartz-rich boulders — you can't see it in in the photograph there. And another that had no visible markers aside from these buried limestone slabs that were underground. So that was Unit 1.

The second unit that we excavated was actually selected based on findings from a ground-penetrating radar unit and the operator informed us that there was a very large anomaly under the ground, about a metre or so. So we decided that we would sink a unit there sort of in an open area. And again when we excavated we found this interesting pavement of sandstone chips. So this rough pavement of stones can be seen here in the bottom right of this image. And of course this mirrors what we found in Unit 1, and was also reported around the jars when [inaudible] excavated in the late 90s. And they appear to be related to internments that are found underneath them.

So the anomaly detected by the GPR was not as large as expected but it was indeed this interesting perforated slab of limestone. And what was underneath the limestone — you can see peeking out — it's a human cranium. It appears as though the skull was positioned underneath this limestone, so that the individual is actually peering out through the perforation in that slab. So this is a primary burial. And this has not actually been found previously at the Plain of Jars. So that was very exciting and interesting.

When we continued to excavate we found the remains of an adult, as you can see, in a flexed position, as well as the skull of an eight-year-old child, that were found on top of the post cranial remains of this individual. Now, the bone preservation was rather poor unfortunately. And there was not a lot of grave goods in the burial either. We did find a little miniature ceramic vessel very similar in shape to the large megalithic jars, which is interesting. And these were actually reported by other excavators — Killarney and [inaudible] found similar jars. And I'll show you an example of what I'm talking about in a minute.

So that was Unit 2. Unit 3 was selected because we found one of these partial discs that Killarney noted. We decided we should investigate what was going on in this in this region. And you'll note actually again at the top of the photograph is one of these quartz-rich boulders that I've been mentioning. So beneath this disc were found some human teeth and several limestone blocks. So again all this sort of repeated pattern of indicators of mortuary activity. There was a little bit of disturbance in this unit, but after about 10 centimetres it was undisturbed so on top there were some war remains from the 1970s — a bit of shrapnel and some clothing. But otherwise the unit was undisturbed.

So the limestone blocks that we found were again placed on top of further burials. In this unit we have evidence for secondary burial, and also burial inside ceramic jars so we have this whole suite of different mortuary activities going on, and the remains of infants were actually found in two of the jars so in this photograph. Maybe it's a little hard to find but you can see some linear features there — tiny little rib bones of a neonate.

One of the jars didn't have any evidence for human remains but it's possible, if it was a very young individual, these have disintegrated. So once we had finished excavating, or got to the bottom, or the sterile layer at least, this is what it looked like. So the jars in the photo were apparently unmarked by any boulders but these are very similar to the jars that were found by Van Den Bergh when she did her rescue excavations, and also jars like this were noted by Killarney and [inaudible]. And again you can see the limestone in there that is related to the burial.

So we extracted these ceramic vessels that you can see here and they were removed to a laboratory for further analysis. But when we removed them we were astounded to find a fourth jar that was in the bark. And you can see that it sits directly underneath that very large quartz-rich boulder. So the inset photo shows you the boulder. You can get an idea of the size of it. So considerable amount of effort went into interring this individual. Now we left that in situ. We had run out of time and were unable to extract it. So it remains there but it does prove that these boulders were used for the demarcation of internments at Site 1.

So the jars in that we've just been talking about a lot of them have this really interesting lacquer applied to them, some sort of organic coating that you can see in the photograph here. So we're hoping to have this analysed. I have to be honest, our first attempts have failed in identifying — I thought that it was a resin but experts at the British Museum have said that it doesn't have any qualities of resin, and they're still working because they're intrigued now as to what it might be. But it certainly doesn't look like a glaze or anything, and it appears to be some kind of organic materials, or some sort of vegetable lacquer.

But the mortuary context — just to one run quite quickly through them. In Unit 1 we had an adult. We don't know the sex of that. There was the remains of a female and also an infant remain, and then another unknown, and another adult of unknown sex and a fetus in the second unit. We found that there was this one [indicates slide] with primary burial remains, and this is an adult female and, as I said before, the remains of an eight-year-old child.

In Unit 3 with the ceramic jar burials we find flecks of bone and teeth found atop the jars. So we're not sure what those are, but certainly human remains. Another of the jars had an adult male, and also that you can see in the photograph there the long bones. So this is not in a jar burial. And then inside one of the jars, as I mentioned, a neonatal or a very young individual found there. Again some photographs of those remains and also the remains in another jar of a four- to six-year-old child.

So an interesting range of mortuary contexts in all three units. I mentioned that Julie had found similar ceramic jars when she did the rescue excavation. We actually excavated the jars that she found because they had just remained in the in the museum since the mid-2000s. We did find fragments of bones but very little other evidence, but glass beads were found, so some sort of burial offerings were found in those, and also a range of other material culture. I should say it was not overwhelming. So it was nice for a neat record keeping. But we do find some interesting artifacts and I'll show you some of those now. They include what appears to be a pendant that was found actually right at the base of one of the big jars, the one I showed you being excavated, probably made out of chloride. An identical pendant was found by Killarney in the 1930s. And you might remember I mentioned those little tiny ceramic jars. This is what they look like. So they're almost identical to these giant megalithic jars but in ceramics they're only about that big so we're hoping to do some residue analysis to see if there's any way to tell what was contained in those.

This is another one of those found in our excavations [points to slide]. We also found agate. So agate is very common, certainly in Iron Age South-East Asia, found in burials very commonly. We only found one Agate bead and it's not of the greatest quality. It's not that beautiful. Carnelian — we found one carnelian bead and you can probably see from the photograph here that also is not of the highest quality. It's a pretty rough looking piece of jewellery. We found evidence for cloth-making in the form of spindle whirls. There was a few spindle whirls found, and also a presumed year lug. There's this kind of looks like a pulley, as it's got a groove around the outside of the disc. So probably used in the ear with the groove holding it in place.

So in total at Site 1 we found the remains of 18 individuals. That equates to about 1.2 individuals per square metre. If you extrapolate those numbers to the entire site, which is almost 7000 square metres, it equates to somewhat around 8000 individuals potentially buried at the site, which is obviously quite breathtaking. And if the dates that we have are consistent this means that it was done within a fairly limited chronological time span of probably about 200 or 300 years. Also of interest of course is the range of mortuary practices that we've uncovered. So we've seen already primary inhumation, we've got the ceramic jar burials, and these secondary bundle burials being found as well. So we're getting a good idea of sort of a very robust cultural trend at Site 1.

The other question everybody wants to know about of course is the dating.

Duncan, is there any more water?

Sorry. So our dates were run by the ANU radiocarbon lab, and luckily for us they came out quite nicely clustered chronologically. So what we have is evidence for mortuary activity dating between — surprisingly to many probably who know about the jars — but dating from the 9th century to the 13th century AD. So this is the same sort of time span as Angkor Wat which is, I think, very, very interesting and telling.

So one sample that was taken from beneath a megalithic jar returned a date of 1163 to 1256 AD, which provides a very interesting terminus post quem for the jar above this context. So the late date of this site actually was hinted at by [inaudible], because he also ran some radiocarbon dates from his excavations, but other dates of his place the site in the Iron Age, and Killarney also thought these were Iron Age deposits across Laos. So these new dates strongly suggest a much more recent use of the jar sites than previously thought.

While we were digging at Site 1 we also took some time to investigate quarry sites, so the excavation and the mapping were not the only things we were interested in doing. But we wanted to look at the relationship of these jar sites to the sites that have been identified as quarry sites. The quarry site that is related to Site 1 is about eight kilometres away, while the quarry for Sites 2 and 3, which are also nearby Site 1, are about five kilometres away from those sites.

So these are massive jars wearing weighing several tonnes going over undulating terrain. How did they move them? This is an interesting question. So one of the things I'm really interested in trying to do is perhaps deploy some [inaudible] that could potentially render evidence for tracks for these drag marks, whatever, to try to investigate how they were transporting these massively heavy jars into their final resting places. But the [inaudible] would also be useful perhaps in identifying occupation sites.

So our efforts so far have been fruitless to find out where these people lived. We have no occupation evidence at all. But if we do deploy [inaudible] it may be possible to identify agricultural activity in the prehistoric, or sort of middle historic period. So we'll see.

Now, this is some imagery from the quarry site that's near Site 2 and you can see very clearly see the chisel marks there, and this is a jar in the foreground here. Why some of these jars have been left behind is a bit of a mystery. Now, — [inaudible] — believes that there was a catastrophic event that led to the collapse of the society and the jars were just abandoned and people disappeared or ran away, which is not impossible of course. So it would be really useful to mount an investigation of the jars that are left in these quarries. It's also possible, of course, that there were faults in the jars and the stonemasons just stopped working on them and moved on to better quality stone. Problem with the quarry sites is none of them have been cleared of UXO, so it is quite dangerous to access these.

We also found evidence for a possible quarry for those quartz-rich boulders. So you can see this hillside there littered with these boulders [points to slide]. So we were able to sample these, and hopefully we'll do a cross-comparison between the ones that Site 1 and these ones in this possible quarry.

I will now turn to our work in 2017. So in 2017 we went to another jar site that is equally large, and I mentioned it was only discovered in 2005. It's more of a typical jar site because it's at a higher elevation. Sites 1, 2 and 3 are actually on a plain at a fairly low elevation. Most of the jar sites are in more elevated areas on mountain, spurs, et cetera. This site is about 200 metres above jar Site 1 and I think, as I say, it is about 30 kilometres distant.

The site comprises a huge number of jars — 415 stone jars, 219 of these discs and lids, and hundreds of boulders. So these jars are all placed in very discrete groups. Originally there were four jars. This is a map [points to slide] that has been created from our recent work. So four jar groups were known at Site 52, and then two further groups of jars were located in 2017 by our research. So there's still a lot of jars out there and it's very difficult to find them, again [inaudible] would be really useful in this context because you have to slog through the jungle to find these things.

We also excavated at Site 52. So we have eight units selected for excavation and groups 1, 2 and 3 denoted by the red circles there [points to slide]. Now, aside from those two new jar groups that we found at 52, several previously unknown quarries, or perhaps transport sites, were also identified and most of these were found at a lower elevation than Site 52. So it seems like they were quarrying the stone and then bringing these big jars up to the site. And we assigned those as Q sites — can just zoom in on that. So the circle on that map is Site 52, with various groups identified, and then the Q sites are the new sites, and other sites there are ones identified, also quarry sites, I should add, by Van Den Bergh. And when I say we discovered them I should give all credit to the gentleman who lived in the village who's like, 'Oh yes, you want jar sites?' So off he took us. What a star.

So the excavations at Site 52 were actually not as profitable as those at Site 51. What we did find, of course, were similar megalithic jars and configurations identified. So we found, when we excavated, evidence for these chips of sandstone in pavement form. We also found limestone slabs related to mortuary activity, and also discs were found as well. Our big find was one tooth evidencing mortuary activity but it was found, very importantly, beside this limestone slab that you can see there [points to slide] along with the ceramic vessel, again with that interesting organic coating, and a glass bead. So a little bit disappointing in terms of finds but, I think, still we have good evidence that these sites had a similar purpose in terms of mortuary disposal now.

What's also interesting about the jars is that they're not only found in Laos. In Sulawesi there are 15 sites that have about 93 jars distributed between them, called [inaudible]. Now, not a lot of work has been done on the jar sites in Sulawesi but they have done some analysis of material culture and they've done some pollen dating on these sites, which is really interesting because they fall in the same time period as the jars in Laos, no earlier than the 9th century AD.

There are, however, some stylistic similarities, as you can probably see from the photographs there of these jars in Sulawesi and the jars in Laos. So we find they have these knobbed lids, and also interesting zoomorphic designs on them. Now, there's a PhD being produced on these jars from Sulawesi, so I'm really waiting with bated breath to get hold of that, and it should be a very interesting resource for comparison to the data that we've collected.

There is also some interesting linguistic links regarding the jars and the cultures that were producing jars. So some of the earlier language groups that were known in Xingkhoang province belong to the Austro-Asiatic family, and it is possible — we can't confirm this, but I think I may have forgotten to add that we hope to get some DNA from that burial in Unit 2 pass the first hurdle, so again we're sort of on tenterhooks waiting for that — but it is possible that these jars were made by people who were [inaudible] and they are known actually to have inhabited Xingkhoang.

Now, that's all very well and good but there's something even more interesting, because in the North Cachar Hills of Assam in North-East India there's a group of people who also are members of the Austro-Asiatic family who are speakers of Khasie. And then if you look at this map, that's interesting. So this map illustrates the current distribution of Austro-Asiatic languages — obviously it's fragmented considerably since prehistoric times. But there you can see the Khasie over on the left at the top in India, and the purple are the distribution of Khmuic speakers.

I should hasten to add that there aren't any specific sub-grouping links between the Khasie and Khmu but there is a shared ancestry between these groups, and our colleague Paul Sidwell at the ANU believes this ancestry probably dates back around 4000 years, or perhaps even less than that. So we have this sort of interesting linguistic link between North India and Laos. And if we look at the genetic evidence it's also interesting.

So there's a couple of hypothesis that are hypotheses regarding the origin and the timing of dispersal of people who spoke Austro-Asiatic languages. One of the ideas is that they originate in South-East Asia and had a dispersal during the Neolithic period into India or South Asia. The opposing idea is that they had pre-Neolithic origins and moved into South-East Asia from India. So these are two different ideas but a recent paper argues that indeed the genetic evidence does support the move of people from South-East Asia into India, probably about 20,000 years ago, or perhaps more recently, but definitely, according to [inaudible], this movement was going towards India. The pathway is exact and the exact timings, of course, are unresolved and more research is needed now.

Okay, why am I talking about this? Well, that's a good question because in the 1920s two British researchers called Mills and Hutton reported the presence of megalithic jars in Assam in North-East India. So this makes these linguistic connections really intriguing. The question about these jars, whether these jars which, of course, bear very strong resemblances to those in Laos, is a very valid one.

So this is going to be one of the focuses of our ongoing research. We've been in very close contact with our Indian colleagues who are working on these — [inaudible] is leading research on these, and we invited him to actually excavate with us at Site 52 last year, and in his opinion there's a very close similarity. 'Ninety per cent,' to quote him, 'in similarity between these jars'.

So there are lots of megalithic sites in India from Tamil, Nadu to Andhra Pradesh, et cetera. You can see them circled on the map. But most of these megalithic sites are of considerable antiquity. They mostly date back to around 1500 BC and in some cases they're quite a bit different. You can see from these images there chambered megaliths and [inaudible] but then look at that picture down in the bottom right from Assam. Wow. It's an almost identical to those similar standing stones in Laos, right down to the discs. It's pretty amazing.

So the researchers in Assam, [inaudible] and his colleagues, have identified six megalithic jar sites in the Dima Hasao Hills of North Cachar. Again, they've identified a whole range very similar to the work done by Jenna Vaizey. So there are undeniable parallels morphological between these jars and the jars of Laos. I think you'll agree. And, as I said, we're currently working to establish a research project with our Indian colleagues. So there's much work to be done there.

So I'll thank you very much for your kind attention. I think I've got a little drone video, too, to leave you with there. So thank you again.

You can ask questions if you want. You don't have to sit there jaws agog.

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: All right. Just check that this is on. All good? Okay, alright. We've got a first question up here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for a fascinating presentation. You mentioned, and it was shown in that video just at the end there, the cave sites in the outcrop, but you didn't come back to them. Have they been investigated at all?

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes. So you can see there's an entrance to that and there's chimney holes in the top of that. So it was very thoroughly excavated by Madeline Killarney, right wall to wall. So there's nothing more to see in there unfortunately. I know my colleague [inaudible-name] excavated in there as well, but he didn't report finding anything, and there's quite a bit of disturbance since the war. I understand that it had a direct rocket hit — went straight in the cave mouth. It was used for storing munitions by the [inaudible] So, yes, it's pretty badly damaged.

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: Another question?

QUESTION: Yes, thank you for a fascinating presentation. I just wondered if there'd been any scraping or analysis of the inside of the jars.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Excellent question. Yes. We actually took [inaudible] last field season from Site 52. Indeed, I was interested to see if there's any lipids from decomposition perhaps, so that's been sent off to the UK for lipid analysis or residue analysis. So again we'll find out shortly. There's a lot of stuff in the pipe that —

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: That's right. Sorry.

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: Anyone else?

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Not when we excavated. So the only evidence of disturbance that we found was from the UXO clearance. But I guess one of the great benefits of these sites is the paucity of material. It's not worth looting them because there's nothing there. I mean, really.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: No. Yes, there is no evidence of looters or anything. I mean, I'm really familiar with looting, so I know what to look for having worked in Cambodia where it's rampant but here there's — I mean, jars are taken, yes. So in that regard, but in terms of subsurface looting no.

QUESTION: I don't know if this is of help but in the early 80s I went to Tulufan or Turpan on the way to Kashgar and saw a vessel like that that had blood on the outside that was new.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: A new one? Wow.

QUESTION: Yes, well it had that colour, and I just wonder if that was the same thing, or just happened to look the same and that that outside thing was not baked blood.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Possibly, yes. The outside thing of —

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Oh, I see. Oh so you're talking about a ceramic jar vessel that you saw and it had blood on it and you think — Oh, yes, well, baked blood. Yes. I should look into it. No, that's helpful. Thank you.

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: We've got time for another question or two.

QUESTION: When you looked at the quarry sites was there any further evidence there about whether the jars were finished in situ or in the rough?

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes. When you go to the quarry sites it appears that the jars were completed there. They're sort of all in various states of completion. Some have little hollows, some are completed all the way but then have a crack. So perhaps that final hammer blow, you know. So it looks like they were finishing the jars at the quarry and then moving them, but possibly they did some final retouching on site which might explain those chips. So I'm really eager to find out about those pavements. But they also seem very closely related to mortuary activities. So it might be that they're unrelated to the jars.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea on how they were moved from the quarry site to where they are now because this is a mammoth job over all these sites going up and down the hill. So to me it's quite fascinating that there must've been so much effort put into doing this for such a long period of time.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Well, I mean, I can only speculate. We have to get Myth Busters over here and help us out with that. But, I mean, I think, you know, elephants are not an impossibility. Madeline Killarney did a lot of calculations in her two-volume book about this, and looked at places in Indonesia et cetera where they moved large megaliths by human power. So she has drawings of these bamboo things and calculated how many individuals it would take to lift it and how far they could carry it and that sort of thing. But there, I mean, it's pure speculation how they moved them whether they were dragged or rolled on logs, et cetera. But it would be fun to do some experimental archaeology. We should also test to see if they're good for rice alcohol-growing, I think.

QUESTION: Are you aware of the megaliths set on the island of Sumatra.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes. Yes.

QUESTION: Apparently they get moved by humans.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes, that's —

QUESTION: On banana trunks. Banana Tree trunks.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes, sort of rolled along. Yes. So I mean that's probable that they were using some sort of traction like that but, again, elephants may have been involved. I mean, if the dates are right.

QUESTION: Do you know that they were growing rice?

DOUGALD O'REILLY: We don't have any data from that yet but we do hope in the coming season to try to collect some environmental evidence. So a colleague of mine in the UK is interested to analyse that, but again these aren't domestic sites. There's no evidence of any domestic activity, so I'm not hopeful necessarily that we'll find a lot of evidence for that. But it's possible.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes, I mean, I'm not a subscriber to that theory. I really do think that these have a mortuary function. I mean, you can make rice wine in a big clay thing. You don't need [inaudible] 20-tonne stone to, you know. But, yes, I mean it's certainly of interest but ...

QUESTION: Is there anything distinctive about the sites where the jars have ended up, given that they are found at a number of locations? Are they all especially high, or any indication at all?

DOUGALD O'REILLY: I mean, I should turn your attention to the gentleman sitting directly in front of you. So he's going to be looking at that for his PhD thesis, so basically analysing the placement of these stone jars in the wider environment to try to analyse view sheds, that kind of thing, why they chose these sites. But without doing any calculations or in-depth analysis it does appear that a lot, or a majority, of them are located on mountain ridges or spurs, what have you, with a very good view of the surrounding countryside. Most of them are elevated. So these ones — 1 and 2 and 3 — are kind of anomalies really. But that makes them accessible to tourists which is good, I guess.

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: Okay, unless anyone has one last burning question.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: If it's a brief statement.

QUESTION: You mentioned tourists, and I was there last year [inaudible].

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes, it certainly is. Did you enjoy it?

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes. Yes, I recommend everybody go. The food is great and the people are wonderful.

QUESTION: Have you dismissed the theory that [inaudible].

DOUGALD O'REILLY: So, no, I haven't. I can't dismiss any theory without evidence. Certainly I have not dismissed theories. But, again, I mean, it's storage for, you know, what purpose? And why are they only there and not really found —

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Yes. I mean, that's possible. No, I haven't dismissed that.

FEMALE QUESTION FACILITATOR: All right. I think that's a perfect time to wrap it up and I'm sure everyone would like to give a big thanks to Dougald for tonight's lecture.

DOUGALD O'REILLY: Thank you.

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Date published: 05 April 2019

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