The Plain of Jars of North Laos - Beyond Madeleine Colani

Lia Genovese
History of Art and Archaeology, SOAS University of London
April, 2014
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Lia Genovese holds a PhD from SOAS-University of London for a Dissertation titled ‘The Plain of Jars of North Laos - Beyond Madeleine Colani’. In 2006 she graduated from the same institution with a Master’s degree (with Distinction) in the History of Art and Archaeology. She regularly lectures at Thammasat and Silpakorn Universities (Bangkok) and is a Member of the Lecture Committee at the Siam Society. Her current research interests include: the Plain of Jars of Laos; colonial archaeology; the megaliths of South and Southeast Asia; Iron Age mortuary practices; the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani; cultural heritage.


The Plain of Jars is a series of archaeological sites located in the Xieng Khouang and Luang Prabang Provinces of north Laos, populated with megaliths attributed to the late Iron Age of Southeast Asia. The thesis combines the historical study of this area in relation to the colonial institutions in Laos from 1893 to the early 1940s, with the author's new mapping of the jar sites based on extensive original documentation. The historical focus is the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani (1866-1943), author of a two-volume monograph on the Plain of Jars (Mégalithes du Haut-Laos, 1935). The events leading up to the first archaeological mission to the Plain of Jars in May 1931, led by Colani under the auspices of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), are analysed. Also addressed is academic interaction between Dutch researchers in Indonesia and their French counterparts in Indochina and how these exchanges led to the first Far-Eastern Prehistory Congress held in Hanoi in January 1932. Under-researched or undocumented aspects of jar form are discussed, together with a sequence of carving steps based on the author's observations at quarries and jar sites. An expanded site distribution is analysed in relation to sources of stone and historical routes. The thesis re-contextualizes Colani's work in her time and with new survey and production matter, redefines jar design and iconography, the spatial distribution of sites and their close relationship to the places and processes of manufacture. Regional comparisons are explored and discussed in relation to megaliths and material culture from archaeological sites in Mainland and Island Southeast Asia, and South Asia.