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. In this page:
- Recommended Books
- Most Popular Posts about Lao Archaeology
- Image Gallery
- News Archive
- Links to External Sites
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.
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.
- Chasing the Emerald Buddha: An Alternative Journey Through Thailand, Laos & Angkor by Ken Lawrence
- Stones Standing: Archaeology, Colonialism, and Ecotourism in Northern Laos by Anna Källén
- Ancient Luang Prabang & Laos by Denise Heywood
- Buddhist Monuments and Temples of Cambodia and Laos Kindle Edition by W. Vivian De Thabrew
- Autour de Vat Phu, de l’exploration à la recherche (1866-1957) by Michel Lorrillard
- Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture Paperback by John Clifford Holt
- Inconvenient Heritage: Erasure and Global Tourism in Luang Prabang by Lynne M Dearborn and John C Stallmeyer
- A History of Laos by Martin by Stuart-Fox
- A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between by Grant Evans
- The Kingdoms of Laos by Sanda Simms
- Prospection archéologique de la vallée laotienne du fleuve Mékong, Volume I by Paul Raymaekers
- Megalithes du Haut Laos by Madeleine Colani
- Le temple de Vat Phu by Henri Parmentier
- Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860: Volume 1 by M. Henri Mouhot
- Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860: Volume 2 by M. Henri Mouhot
Most Popular Posts on Lao Archaeology
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Lao Archaeology in the News
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.
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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!
- Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts – Containing images of over 12,000 Lao texts made available for study. Collaboration by the National Library of Laos, the University of Passau, and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz
- Lao-UNESCO Programme for “Safeguarding the Plain of Jars”
- Middle Mekong Archaeology Project – Directed by Dr Joyce White of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, MMAP is the project site of a survey of a portion of the Mekong river in Laos.
- Vat Phou Champasak World Heritage – Official site sponsored by France.