Researchers in India have discovered mysterious giant jars that may have been used in ancient funerary practices, reports BBC News. Found across four sites in the northeastern state of Assam, the 65 sandstone vessels vary in shape and size. Though archaeologists have yet to date the trove, they note that similar jars unearthed in the region are believed to date to 401 B.C.E. or earlier.
Published last month in the journal Asian Archaeology, the findings stem from a 2020 survey of Assam’s Dima Hasao province.
“At the start the team just went in to survey three large sites that hadn't been formally surveyed,” says study co-author Nicholas Skopal, an archaeologist at Australian National University, in a statement. “From there grids were set up to explore the surrounding densely forested regions. This is when we first started finding new jar sites.”
Who created the jars and what their exact purpose was remains unclear. But comparable vessels—some measuring up to 10 feet tall and 6.5 feet wide—have previously been discovered in Laos and Indonesia, reports Hannah Osborne for Newsweek. Some of these giant jars contained human remains, hinting at their use in burial rituals.
The newly discovered vessels are empty but may have once been covered with lids, lead author Tilok Thakuria, an archaeologist at North-Eastern Hill University in India, tells BBC News. Next, he adds, the researchers plan to “excavate and extensively document features of these jars.”
Archaeologists first recorded ancient jar sites in Assam in 1929, writes Michelle Starr for Science Alert. All told, researchers in the region have found approximately 797 jars in an area spanning 115 square miles.
“There are stories from the Naga people, the current ethnic groups in northeast India, of finding the Assam jars filled with cremated remains, beads and other material artifacts,” says Skopal in the statement.
According to Newsweek, Skopal, Thakuria and co-author Uttam Bathari of Gauhati University suspect that the jar sites in Assam and Laos are connected. Perhaps, they theorize, Assam’s ancient residents moved to Laos, bringing the tradition with them—or vice versa. Dating the Assam jars may help the team confirm the timeline, placing their creation before or after the roughly 3,000-year-old Laos jars.
Another mystery surrounding the giant vessels centers on the sandstone used to carved them. Newsweek reports that the jars appear to have been carved from boulders, perhaps mined at a quarry in Assam or a nearby creek or riverbed.
The researchers are eager to survey more sites in Assam and the neighboring states of Meghalaya and Manipur, as they believe other jar caches have yet to be found.
“It’s a lot of jungle and forest,” Skopal tells Newsweek. “We’ve literally only looked at one little area. There must be more, because every time we wander out, we find new sites.”
By identifying other ancient jar sites, the team hopes to save the artifacts from destruction by farming and development.
“It seems as though there aren’t any living ethnic groups in India associated with the jars, which means there is an importance to maintain the cultural heritage,” says Skopal in the statement. “The longer we take to find them, the greater chance that they will be destroyed. ... Once the sites have been recorded, it becomes easier for the government to work with the local communities to protect and maintain them.”