A team of archaeologists from Assam have stumbled upon the biggest stone jar site in the world right in its own backyard – Nuchubunglo in Dima Hasao district of Assam.

Stone jars are a unique archaeological phenomenon in Assam, with similar features also present in Laos and Indonesia. Sites in Assam were first noted in the early 20th century, with systematic recording not commencing until 2014 by a collaborative effort from the North-Eastern Hill University, Nagaland University and the Archaeological Survey of India.

Stone jars in different sites in Dima Hasao. Photo Tilok Thakuria

The study has been published in Asian Archaeology journal.

The team, led by Tilok Thakuria from North Eastern Hill University, comprises Uttam Bathari of Gauhati University, while Nicholas Skopal of Australian National University helped with the data work.

A fresh survey carried out in 2020 reported four previously-unreported megalithic jar sites, increasing the number from seven to 11 known jar sites, with 10 geolocated. 797 stone jars, in various states of preservation, were found over an area of around 300 sq km in Dima Hasao.

“The site – Nuchubunglo – was first reported by Mills and Hutton in 1929 who reported around 400 jars during their survey. The closest village to the site is known as Nuchubunglo which means ‘hills of hollowed stones’ in the Zemi dialect,” Tilok Thakuria, Teacher-In-Charge, Dept. of History and Archaeology, North Eastern Hill University, told EastMojo.

“Our survey recorded 546 sandstone jars spread along a conjoining ridge and spur with views over the surrounding landscape, at a height above sea level of between 750–710 metres,” Thakuria said. This site has the distinction of having the highest stone jar sites in the world.

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The site contains two distinct jar sizes: smaller jars at an average of 50 cm in both height and width; and larger jars at an average height of 170 cm and 100 cm width. 

The majority of the jars are in poor condition with only 111 out of 546 jars complete. Further damage is occurring to the jars due to recent road cutting projects.

Between the late second millennium BC and 13th century AD, communities occupying Southeast Asia developed a remarkable cultural landscape incorporating stone jars. These features have been recorded in Laos and Indonesia as well. Previous research suggests that the Assam jars are distributed over an area of around  300 sq km, mostly located on ridgelines, hill slopes and spurs. Sites consist of various features including hundreds of jars, engraved stones, seating stones.

The Assam jars were first described in 1929 by James Philip Mills and John Henry Hutton, two civil servants under the British Raj who reported six jar sites: Derebore (now Hojai Dobongling), Kobak, Kartong, Molongpa (now Melangpeuram), Ndunglo and Bolasan (now Nuchubunglo).

They hypothesized a mortuary function for the jars based on ethnographic analogies, referring to the practices of ancestral bone repository of tribes like Mikir, Sakchips, Hangkals, Kuki, Khasi and Synteng, and evidence of cremated bone fragments placed in one of the jars, he said.

“Jars indicate early use of iron in Neolithic Age, and also indicate cultural geography of jars builders covering Neolithic Age and SouthEast Asia,” Thakuria said.

In 2014, a joint team under the purview of the ASI, Guwahati Circle, had conducted a targeted survey in Dima Hasao to relocate the jar sites identified by Mills and Hutton. The team used the village names associated with each of the six jar sites, identified as partnof the 1932 report (Mills and Hutton 1929), to focus survey efforts. The survey resulted in the geolocation of all the reported sites except for Ndulngo. In 2016, the joint team continued their research at Hojai Dobongling where they further investigated the potential habitation deposit and the clusters of engraved flat circular stones.

In 2020, the team aimed to comprehensively survey and document three known jar sites: Nuchubunglo, Loungmailai, and Hojai Dobongling within Haflong subdivision and where possible, to locate and survey new sites in the designated two areas of interest.

The team surveyed seven jar sites: the previously reported sites including Loungmailai, Hojai Dobongling, Nuchubunglo and; four previously unreported sites Thaimodholing-1 and Thaimodholing-2, Lower Chaikam and Herakilo.

During the 2020 survey, it was further revealed that the positioning of jars at some sites, for example Thaimodholing-1, suggest views are directional with jars purposely facing towards a particular area. This may suggest that the jars were placed to observe, or be observed from, a specific place in the landscape.

Across the surveyed jar sites, the authors observed some variation of jar shape and decoration. Three distinct jar sites types were recorded: bulbous top with conical end, biconcial, and cylindrical, with the Nuchubunglo, the largest site, displaying all three types.

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“Shapes of the jars, variation of shapes at site level, maximum number of jars at Bolosan surprised me,” Thakuria said.

“We cannot say how many jar sites are in Assam, but certainly could be more,” said Thakuria, who has been working on stone jars since 2014.

He said there is a need to plan for systematic and scientific excavation of the jars sites to recover cultural materials of the people to know about the social and cultural behavior of the people who made the jars. Presently the jars are empty.

The study says insights gained through research at jar sites in Assam contribute to an understanding of this broader megalithic jar phenomenon distributed across Southeast Asia.

“There are likely still many sites yet to be discovered in the heavily forested upland landscape across Assam. Further research is also required to compare the Assam jars to those in Laos and Indonesia to better understand the likely cultural relationship,” the study said.

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