February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

Yonaguni

In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

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September 12, 1940 Lascaux Caves

Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.  Four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzer columns had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people shocked and prostrate in the wake of their surrender, that June.  All those years their government had told them, the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot Line was more than a match for the German military.

France had fallen in six weeks.

On June 18, Charles DeGaulle addressed the French nation from his exile in Great Britain, exhorting his countrymen to fight on.  Resist.  The idea caught on quickly in occupied regions.

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the southern part of “La Métropole” in July, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Resistance against this new government in Vichy was slower to form.  This was, after all a French government, and French attitudes took a decidedly anti-English turn with the July 3 British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir.

Before long, Vichy’s collaborationist policies hardened French attitudes against itself. The French Resistance was born.

Sometime around this period, a tree fell unseen near the French village of Montignac.  On September 12, 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking his black & white mongrel dog “Robot”, in the woods.  Coming upon the downed tree, the pair noticed a deep hole had opened up, where the tree had once stood.  Stories differ as to which of the two went down the hole first, but it soon became clear.  Marcel Ravidat and his dog had discovered something more than a mere hole in the ground.

The boy returned to the site with three buddies, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.

History is no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.  Here, four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

Lascaux 1The Lascaux Caves are located in the Dordogne region, in Southwestern France.  Some 17,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic artists mixed mineral pigments such as iron oxide (ochre), haematite, and goethite, suspending pigments in animal fat, clay or the calcium-rich groundwater of the caves themselves.  Shading and depth were added with charcoal.

Colors were swabbed or blotted onto surfaces.  There is no evidence of brushwork.  Sometimes, pigments were placed in a hollow tube, and blown onto the wall.  Where the cave rock is softer, images are engraved.

The colour, size, quality and quantity of the images at Lascaux, are astonishing.  Abbé Breuil, a Catholic priest and the first expert to examine its walls, called it the “Sistine chapel of prehistory”.

Lascaux 3The artist or artists who created such images, nearly 2,000 of them occupying some 37 chambers, would have been recognizable as modern humans.  Living as they did some 5,000 years before the Holocene Glacial Retreat, (yes, they had “climate change” back then), these cave-dwellers were pre-agricultural, subsisting on what they could find, or what they could kill.

More than 900 of their images are recognizable as animals. 605 of them have been precisely identified. Hundreds of images depict horses, stags, cattle, lions and bison.  Other subjects appear with less frequency.  There are seven cats, a bird, a bear, a wooly rhinoceros, and one human.

LascauxThe purpose served by these images is unclear.  Perhaps they tell stories of past hunts, or maybe they were used to call up the spirits for a successful hunt.  At least one professor of art and archaeology postulates that the dot and lattice patterns overlying many of these paintings may reflect trance visions, similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.

36 animals occupy the “Great Hall of Bulls”, including a single black Auroch specimen measuring 17ft long, the largest such image ever discovered in cave art.  One semi-spherical chamber, the “Apse”, is covered from the floor to its 8’9″ vaulted ceiling with overlapping, entangled drawings and engravings, demonstrating that these people erected scaffolding to create such work.lascaux4b

The Lascaux caves were used by the French Resistance for weapons storage during the war, and opened to the public in 1948.  That would prove to be a mistake.

The underground environment had been stable for all those thousands of years.  Now the light, the air circulation, and the exhalations of thousands of visitors a day, were irreparably changing the cave environment.  By the 1950s, colors had noticeably begun to change and fade.  Crystals and lichens began to grow on the walls, black and white molds grew quickly throughout the cave complex.

The cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings restored and a monitoring system installed.  Molds, lichens and crystallized minerals bedevil the ancient cave art to this day.  Only a handful of scientific experts are now permitted access to the site, and that’s only for a few days per month.  Some of the most eminent preservation specialists on the planet continue to wrestle with the problem.

The prehistory buff can find a lot to like in the Vézère region of France.  The valley has 147 prehistoric sites, 15 of them listed as Unesco World Heritage sites.

“Lascaux II” opened in 1983, an exact replica of the Hall of the Bulls and the “Painted Gallery” areas at the original, educating and informing the public without further harm to the archetype.

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Inside the museum that houses Lascaux 4 (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

The 800 square meter mobile “Lascaux 3” began a world tour in 2012, scheduled to continue through 2020.  Most recently, the exhibit departed the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka, Japan, on September 3.  The €57 million ($68 million), multi-media Lascaux IV opened last December, 8,500 square meters of high-tech exhibit space where each visitor is free to explore four exhibition rooms, equipped with an electronic compagnon de visite, a tablet-like device which looks like it’s been flaked and formed out of slate, Fred Flintstone style.

Kindly permit me a personal note, on which to end.  Years ago, the Long family convened our annual “Blue Gray Ramble” at the Petersburg battlefield, in Virginia.  There’s a cut running parallel to the lines there, almost a ravine, not far from the crater.  The thing has got to be 12 feet deep, narrowing downward to a hard, dry stream bed.

Working our way down the bottom of the cut, we encountered an archaeologist’s dream of fossils:  Gastropods, scallop shells, copepods, shark’s teeth.  The denizens of a long forgotten sea, cast in stone and exposed to the light of a Civil War battlefield.

We were there that weekend to discover history, and that is what we did, albeit from a new and unexpected perspective.