Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The armies not there, the battles not fought

In the late 1960s, a local Laotian population was reduced to living in caves, if not the unusual, jar-like artifacts dating back several thousand years! The locals were trying to survive the combat of two military forces both of which claimed they were not there --the North Vietnamese Army and the US Air Force who did not officially bomb the army not there. The Plain of Jars is still pockmarked with huge bomb craters left by armies not there, not waging war. The region is still unsafe because two military forces --one not representing US imperialism, the other not a proxy for the "Red" Chinese, did not fight among the ancient remains. Officially!

As mysterious as Stonehenge, the huge stone jars are scattered in groups along high plains in Northern Laos. Little is known of their origins or purpose. Erosion suggests that the artifacts may be older than either Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Precise dating may be impossible. They are big and heavy, most weighing in between a half to a ton. One of them is estimated to weigh seven tons.

More recent artifacts are traced to military forces never there. It was in the sixties, specifically, that they were not there when they did not leave the area pockmarked with huge craters which remain beside the jars. The entire region remains unsafe because of massive quantities of unexploded ordinance not left behind.
On a windy plateau in northern Laos, hundreds of three- to ten-foot-tall stone urns, some weighing as much as seven tons, lie scattered across a grassy plain. The local inhabitants say that the jars were made to celebrate a great military victory 1,500 years ago. The plain, so the story goes, was ruled by an evil king, named Chao Angka, who oppressed his people so terribly that they appealed to a good king to the north, named Khun Jeuam, to liberate them. Khun Jeuam and his army came, and after waging a great battle on the plain, defeated Chao Angka. Elated, Khun Jeuam ordered the construction of large jars to be used in making wine for a victory celebration.

The jars are at least as old as the legend claims, but if any were used for making wine, that was not their original function. In the 1930s, French archeologist Madeline Colani documented the jars in a 600-page monograph, The Megaliths of Upper Laos, concluding that they were funerary urns carved by a vanished Bronze Age people. The jars nevertheless remain enigmatic, because after Colani’s time, Laos fell into an almost continual state of war—fought over successively by the French, the Japanese, and the Americans. With peace restored, and the subsequent period of isolation ended, we visited the Plain of Jars last winter to learn about them and see how they had fared during the decades of fighting.

--Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Laos Keeps Its Urns

It is fitting. A jar, after all, is defined by the space unoccupied, the matter left out, empty space where something is not --just as Laos is defined by the war not fought, the armies not there, the bombs not dropped.

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