In Laos, the lady and the jars
The Plain of Jars in Laos is an area of the Xieng Khouang plateau scattered with thousands of megalithic stone jars that are about 2,000 years old.
The New York Times
Stuffed with passengers and piled high with luggage, our minivan careened down a twisting mountain road, descending across northern Laos. The spot where I got carsick, I later learned, was precisely where the unfinished French colonial road had reached its westernmost end in 1932.
That year, an archaeologist named Madeleine Colani took refuge at the road works encampment there, where a Monsieur Ruffet presided over the construction of Route 7, which would run from Hanoi, the capital of French Indochina, to the royal city of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. Though Monsieur received Mademoiselle and her crew amiably, troubles awaited them at his camp that far exceeded my own temporary discomfort.
"The few laborers we had with us ran away one by one without even asking for their wages," Colani later wrote in her 1935 book, "The Megaliths of Upper Laos." "Dengue reigned at the site; my sister, my Laotian interpreter and some of the faithful laborers took ill. ... It was May, season of the first strong storms; it was urgent to get back to the Plain of Jars before the route was cut off."
I too wanted to get to the Plain of Jars, though at the moment mainly so that I could be released from our lurching vehicle. I didn't have to worry about bad weather leading to an inaccessible route, but I did wonder, as we banged in and out of yet another pothole, if the road had been improved at all in the eight decades since Ruffet left.
The Plain of Jars is an area of the Xieng Khouang plateau of Laos scattered with thousands of megalithic stone jars that are about 2,000 years old. They are grouped into clusters that range from just a few to hundreds. The tallest jars reach nearly 10 feet high.
Colani, who was born in France but spent years conducting archaeological surveys in Southeast Asia, was, in more ways than one, the reason I was here. First, she is the source of most of what is known about the jars and their makers. There are local legends about their origin — one says that a tribe of giants used them as wine chalices to celebrate a great victory. But after many months of fieldwork, Colani suggested convincingly that they were used in funerary rites, intended to hold cremated remains. For decades beginning in the 1940s, the region was ravaged by war; archaeologists started to build on her work only in the '90s. Since then, they have had to tiptoe around the unexploded bomb parts that still litter the landscape from American carpet bombing in the late '60s, when the U.S. and Vietnam fought a proxy war there.
Relative to other Iron Age civilizations, the jar makers remain mysterious, and I was attracted to this hole in the historical record. But I had become just as intrigued by Colani herself, the woman who tried to fill in the blanks. Who was this Frenchwoman who had withstood actual hardship — as opposed to the kind a dose of Dramamine can fix — to solve an ancient riddle?
Diminutive and partial to all-black attire, Colani explored the jars under the auspices of the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, a French scholarly institute dedicated to the study of Asian civilizations. Its director, Georges Coedes, called her "the doyenne of Indochinese geological and prehistoric studies" in his obituary of her for the weekly newspaper Indochine. She was born in Strasbourg in 1866 and, at 32, traveled to Indochina, where she taught high school. She earned a doctorate back in France, and in her 60s began the archaeological work for which she would become most famous. She died in 1943 in Hanoi at the age of 76, five months after the death of her sister and assistant, Eleonore. "I know few men in the prime of their lives who would be capable of redoing under the same conditions what these two valiant women accomplished," Coedes wrote.
Before setting out on my trip, I obtained "The Megaliths of Upper Laos," Colani's great contribution to archaeological literature. It is hands down the best guide to the jars — that is, if you don't mind carrying around a 719-page, two-volume hardcover available only in French. Though it is packed with scientific detail and richly informed theory, it was the introduction, where she shares glimpses of her own adventure, that I found most captivating. On one expedition she set out chasing a tip that there was a single field of 1,000 jars: "Abominable voyage, on tracks that often followed the summits, hardly trodden ... frequent violent storms," she wrote. "At night, with little or no village, it was necessary to sleep in hastily raised shelters made of banana leaves."
The minivan deposited us in Phonsavan, the modern provincial capital, where rebar from unfinished buildings sprouts above rice paddies and one of the primary local industries is bomb clearance. Another is tourism — I was easily able to hire a guide and driver at the front desk of one of the hotels on the dusty main drag, where Route 7 runs through town. Three of the larger jar sites that Colani surveyed in 1931 are accessible by car, one of them via a paved road. It was a far cry from her travels on foot, and I feared that my adventures would somehow always be diminished compared with those of my predecessors. Even this place that had seemed remote on the map was not all that hard to reach.
The next morning at Site 1, we were among the first visitors of the day, and so I explored the more than 300 stone vessels that spread over the undulating land in silence. Here and there the natural gradient was interrupted by a perfectly symmetrical bomb crater, grown over with the same dry grass that covered everything else. The smallest jars barely came to my thighs, but the biggest, locally known as the King's Cup, was more than 8 feet tall. The jars seemed to have individual personalities, leaning this way or that, some sociably clustered and others off alone, with gaping maws in different shapes and sizes. "When we found ourselves in front of these countless barrels of stone, whole or broken, emerging more or less from a tangle of wild grasses, we were greatly puzzled," Colani wrote of her arrival at Site 1. The heaviest jars weigh more than 6 tons, and Colani, along with later archaeologists, determined that they hadn't been quarried where they stood. And so, an obvious question: How had they been moved? Colani postulated racks made of tree trunks, though a definitive answer is still elusive.
From Site 1 we drove to Muang Khoune, where Colani based herself when she wasn't in the field. An ancient crossroads town, it was in her time the provincial capital and home to a few French officials. Today, historical scars are evident. A 16th-century Buddhist stupa stands over 80 feet tall, but lists a little thanks to a 19th-century ravaging by Chinese invaders. A sitting Buddha from the same era looms over the town's main street, its damaged face set in a complacent smirk; the original monastery around it was destroyed by American bombings. Though little from the colonial era remains in Muang Khoune, I imagined Colani sitting on one of the dark hardwood balconies, poring over her notes, perhaps sketching one of the many maps or diagrams that would appear in her book.
I retreated to the more modern Phonsavan that night, sleeping on clean sheets instead of under banana fronds, as Colani so often did. She made her last visit to the Plain of Jars in 1940 at the age of 74, not long before her own government's hold on the region would begin to crack. By then she had come to certain conclusions about the jar makers — that they were sedentary farmers, for instance, who traded with neighboring civilizations. "To cut all the jars," she wrote of Site 1, "it took laborers, numerous laborers, disciplined, well led, perhaps over centuries."
But in her book, even as she sums up, she raises unanswered questions: How old was this culture exactly? Might there have been other burial methods too? Did what she'd learn on the Plain of Jars reveal anything about other parts of the world? It was mysteries like these that drove Colani. And yet, enticed by mystery, I felt grateful that some things remained unknown.