ANU helps secure world heritage status for jars of Laos

Mysterious jars potentially used for burial rituals in Laos have won world heritage status after years of research by archaeological scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Melbourne.

The announcement of seven new cultural sites by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was made on Saturday night and included Laos’ Plain of Jars.

Little was known about the ancient megalithic jars when the team began a series of excavations of the Plain of Jars in 2016 with the Lao Department of Heritage.

The researchers’ work – which earlier this year saw a major breakthrough with the discovery of 15 unknown sites containing more than 130 jars – was crucial to the successful UNESCO bid.

ANU archaeologist Dr Dougald O’Reilly who co-led the research team said he was thrilled to hear the outcome for the Plain of Jars from UNESCO’s recent World Heritage Committee meeting in Baku.

“These sites are truly representative of human ingenuity and the richness of this lost culture is astounding,” Dr O’Reilly said.

“We identified early on the need for a greater understanding of the jar sites and that is where the collaborative Lao-Australian research came in and continues.

“Our excavations and surveys have greatly expanded our knowledge of the culture who created the jars but there is much yet to do.

“We all feel proud to have played even a minor role in the successful inscription of the Plain of Jars as World Heritage.”

The campaign for World Heritage status started in 1998, when UNESCO and the Lao Government committed to protecting the Xieng Khouang plateau – where thousands of the jars sit.

Experts believe the jars, which weigh up to 20 tonnes, are 2,500 years old and form part of complex burial rituals.

Co-leader of the research team, Dr Louise Shewan, a Faculty of Science Centenary Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences, says the world heritage inscription recognises the tremendous amount of work done by Lao heritage officials and other researchers.

“The world heritage listing of the Lao megalithic jar sites will bring this unique cultural landscape to global awareness, leading to greater conservation of the sites and will heighten the need to understand more about the culture that created the sites,” Dr Shewan said.

The team co-led by Dr O’Reilly and Dr Shewan includes colleagues from James Cook University and the University of Otago in New Zealand, and Dr Thonglith Luangkoth from the Lao Department of Heritage.

The research is funded by the Australian Research Council.

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