Archaeology of Laos

Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country has many secrets to reveal

From the Plain of Jars in Xiengkhouang Province to the royal capital of Luang Prabang and the ancient Khmer Ruins of Vat Phou, Laos is replete with archaeological treasures. Laos is a mountainous country with an average elevation of 2,083 m. This terrain with its diverse topography, from the high plateaus of the highlands to the narrow valleys and myriad waterfalls and rivers, has formed landscapes throughout history. At the same time, the country is relatively harder to access and traverse than its neighbours, which meant that archaeological expeditions have been harder to conduct.

To cite this page: Tan, Noel Hidalgo (2021, updated 04 April 2022) Archaeology of Laos. Southeast Asian Archaeology. Available at: https://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/laos-archaeology/

This page covers the archaeology of Laos as a whole, and you can find details about the other countries in their respective pages or explore the Resource Guide for thematic areas. There’s also the Virtual Archaeology page where you can visit Southeast Asian archaeological sites online, learn something from the Online Lecture Library, or find recent academic papers for more up-to-date research.

What is known from the archaeology of Laos is regionally significant. One of the oldest examples of anatomically modern humans was discovered in Tam Pa Ling in northern Laos, indicating that humans were in Southeast Asia from at least around 60,000 years ago. Around the late second millennium BCE, people starting making giant stone jars and arranging them on elevated areas along the Xiengkhouang Plateau; these jar sites were later used as burial areas in the first millennium CE.

In the fifth century CE, southern Laos was a likely a part of Chenla with the ruins at Vat Phou as a capital; this area also later came under Khmer control during the Angkorian period. In the 14th century, a ruler named Fa Ngum established a kingdom known as Lan Xang, meaning “the million elephants”, centred around Muang Sewa (present-day Luang Prabang), with the aid of Angkor. Over the 15th century Lan Xang flourished, jockeying for territorial control and influence amongst other regional kingdoms, until the 18th century when it became a vassal for the Siamese.

In the 19th century, the by-then three kingdoms of Laos (Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak) became a unified protectorate of the French. It remained a French terrirtory until after World War II, when it gained independence. After a period of civil war, and having suffered intense bombings as a result of the Vietnam-American War, the country remains one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. The government has little infrastruture and its few museums are poorly funded and have small collections. As a result, archaeological research is difficult without institutional support; however, this is improving as new generations of Laotians become more educated and aware of their country’s heritage. Only with greater public interest and awareness can increased funds be granted to the many historical sites which remain to be excavated.

Recommended Books

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There aren’t many books about the archaeology of Laos, and the list below is my personal recommendations based on what I have in my library or have read. Newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.

Sale
Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture
Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture
Holt, John Clifford (Author); English (Publication Language); 364 Pages - 10/31/2011 (Publication Date) - University of Hawaii Press (Publisher)
−$19.45 $7.55
Sale
Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860: Volume 1
Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860: Volume 1
Mouhot, M. Henri (Author); English (Publication Language); 327 Pages - 03/28/2001 (Publication Date) - Adamant Media Corporation (Publisher)
−$7.38 $16.61
Sale
A History of Laos
A History of Laos
Used Book in Good Condition; Stuart-Fox, Martin (Author); English (Publication Language); 272 Pages - 09/28/1997 (Publication Date) - Cambridge University Press (Publisher)
−$4.61 $25.38
Art et archéologie du Laos.
Art et archéologie du Laos.
Giteau, Madeleine (Author); French (Publication Language); 208 Pages - 03/15/2001 (Publication Date) - PICARD (Publisher)
$105.00
Le temple de Vat Phu (French Edition)
Le temple de Vat Phu (French Edition)
Parmentier, Henri (Author); French (Publication Language); 64 Pages - 01/01/1914 (Publication Date) - University of Michigan Library (Publisher)
$15.99
MEGALITHES DU HAUT LAOS (HUA PAN, TRAN NINH) [Two Volumes]
MEGALITHES DU HAUT LAOS (HUA PAN, TRAN NINH) [Two Volumes]
Colani, Madeleine, 1866-1943 (Author); 05/25/2022 (Publication Date) - Les Editions d’Art et d’Histoire (Publisher)
Stones Standing: Archaeology, Colonialism, and Ecotourism in Northern Laos (UCL Institute of Archaeology Critical Cultural Heritage Series)
Stones Standing: Archaeology, Colonialism, and Ecotourism in Northern Laos (UCL Institute of Archaeology Critical Cultural Heritage Series)
Amazon Kindle Edition; Källén, Anna (Author); English (Publication Language); 239 Pages - 07/01/2016 (Publication Date) - Routledge (Publisher)
$58.95
Mégalithes du Haut-Laos : Hua Pan, Tran Ninh. Tome 1 / par Mlle Madeleine Colani,... Volume 1 1935 [Leather Bound]
Mégalithes du Haut-Laos : Hua Pan, Tran Ninh. Tome 1 / par Mlle Madeleine Colani,... Volume 1 1935 [Leather Bound]
Anonymous (Author); 436 Pages - 05/25/2022 (Publication Date) - Generic (Publisher)
$58.63
Ancient Luang Prabang & Laos
Ancient Luang Prabang & Laos
Heywood, Denise (Author); English (Publication Language); 214 Pages - 03/05/2015 (Publication Date) - River Books (Publisher)
$27.84
A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between (A Short History of Asia series)
A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between (A Short History of Asia series)
Evans, Grant (Author); English (Publication Language); 272 Pages - 05/01/2003 (Publication Date) - Allen & Unwin (Publisher)
$26.60
Inconvenient Heritage: Erasure and Global Tourism in Luang Prabang (Heritage, Tourism, and Community) (Volume 3)
Inconvenient Heritage: Erasure and Global Tourism in Luang Prabang (Heritage, Tourism, and Community) (Volume 3)
Hardcover Book; Dearborn, Lynne M (Author); English (Publication Language); 168 Pages - 06/15/2010 (Publication Date) - Routledge (Publisher)
$154.23
Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860: Volume 2
Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860: Volume 2
Mouhot, M. Henri (Author); English (Publication Language); 356 Pages - 03/28/2001 (Publication Date) - Adamant Media Corporation (Publisher)
$27.99
Chasing the Emerald Buddha: An Alternative Journey Through Thailand, Laos & Angkor
Chasing the Emerald Buddha: An Alternative Journey Through Thailand, Laos & Angkor
Lawrence, Ken (Author); English (Publication Language); 292 Pages - 12/10/2019 (Publication Date) - Sailingstone Press LLC (Publisher)
$34.99
The Kingdoms of Laos
The Kingdoms of Laos
Used Book in Good Condition; Simms, Sanda (Author); English (Publication Language); 240 Pages - 06/29/2001 (Publication Date) - Routledge (Publisher)
$59.95

Last update on 2022-05-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Lao Archaeology in the News

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The news reports indexed below usually link to external sites that were active at the time of posting; sometimes websites may be temporarily down or may have reorganised their underlying architecture or have even closed down – in these cases the links may not be available. Most of the news articles archived are in English; this is largely because I do not have a working competency in Lao, although when I am made aware of stories in this and other languages I try to index them.

Looking for something specific? You can also use this search box:

These are links to external sites and unless stated, I have no connection with the organisations or entities in these links or control over their content. They are sorted alphabetically, but you should also explore the Resources page which have links sorted by themes. If you have a link to suggest, please get in touch!

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