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An ancient people, lost to time? Mystery of giant sandstone jars found in Assam

Researchers from Indian and Australian universities found 65 jars scattered across sites that may have been used for funerary rites. Findings published in journal Asian Archaeology.

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New Delhi: A team of archaeologists has unearthed 65 mysterious giant sandstone jars scattered across four new sites in Assam that may have been used for funerary rites. Altough no group in the area seems to be associated with the jars or the customs they may represent, the discovery points to an ancient people who may have been lost to time.

The details of the discovery — which involved researchers from three universities in India and Australia — were published in the journal Asian Archaeology on 28. The research was led by Tilok Thakuria from North-Eastern Hill University and Uttam Bathari from Gauhati University in collaboration with researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Speaking to ThePrint, Bathari said that due to the slash-and-burn cultivation practices in the areas, most of the jars are not in good shape, making the analysis of contents nearly impossible. Slash-and-burn agriculture is a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field.

“The jars had no remains. However, the local communities told us that they used to hunt for these jars for beads. This (the jars containing beads) is similar to the jars found in 1930s in Laos and Indonesia,” he added.

Although the team is yet to carry out carbon dating of the jars, they believe that these jars likely date back to the same time period as the jars found in Indonesia and Laos.

The jars vary in shape and size. Some are tall and cylindrical, while the others are partly or fully buried in the ground. Similar stone vessels have previously been found in Laos and Indonesia, which been dated back roughly to between 500 BCE and 500 CE.

“We still don’t know who made the giant jars or where they lived. It’s all a bit of a mystery,” Nicholas Skopal, an ANU PhD student, said in a statement.  The researchers believe it’s likely that the jars were associated with funerary practices.

Skopal said that some ethnic groups in Northeast India have reported finding jars filled with cremated remains, beads, and other material artefacts.


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Findings of great importance

The team initially set out to survey existing sites in Assam that had such jars. However, as the researchers moved about the landscape, they realised there was more to be uncovered.

“At the start, the team just went in to survey three large sites that hadn’t been formally surveyed. From there, grids were set up to explore the surrounding densely forested regions,” Skopal said.

“This is when we first started finding new jar sites. The team only searched a very limited area, so there are likely to be a lot more out there. We just don’t yet know where they are”, he added.

The surveying and reporting of these sites are of great importance regarding heritage management in India.

“It seems as though there aren’t any living ethnic groups in India associated with the jars, which means it is important to maintain the cultural heritage. The longer we take to find them, the greater the chance that they will be destroyed, as more crops are planted in these areas and the forests are cut down,” Skopal said.

(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)


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