After Assam, stone jar sites reported from Meghalaya
Pictures credit: Marco Mitri

Guwahati: Researchers from different institutions in Northeast India have found stone jars from seven sites in the East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. The seven sites where the stones jars have been found are Saipung, New Plang Moi, Thuruk, Mualhoi, Mualsei Thialsen Tlang, Mualsei Neng Seng, and Mualsei Lungmaicham.

A few months back, stone jar sites were reported from the North Cachar District of Assam. A study published in Archaeological Research in Asia journal has revealed the spotting of stone jar sites from Meghalaya – the second site after Assam in Northeast India. This is also the first study in Northeast India which provides the scientific dates of jar sites.

Marco Mitri of the History Department of Union Christian College, Shillong, who is the corresponding author of the study, told EastMojo that the carbon dates of the sites show the continuity of burial practice till the 14th century AD. “The dates from the Mualsei Thialsen site which dates to the 4th century BC are consistent with jar sites from Laos attests to the coexistence of stone jar culture from Laos to Jaintia Hills over a long period of time,” Mitri said.

The study stated that material evidence from the excavation clearly suggests that the stone jars are visible relics which were erected on top of a pit where the post-cremated cultural materials of the dead are buried.

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“In the East Jaintia Hills, megalithic jar sites are reported along the Saipung Reserve Forest, a protected wildlife sanctuary in Meghalaya,” the study states.

The megalithic jars of Northeast India remain significantly under-researched, and hence, little is known of them. The entire region is known for its vast megalithic landscapes ranging from tall standing stones, sitting platforms, and dolmens to megalithic jars, circular stone slabs etc

Stone jars of Northeast India have been a subject of great interest since their first discovery in 1929 by James Philip Mills and John Henry Hutton in North Cachar Hills, Assam. In Southeast Asia, they were first reported by McCarthy (1900) in Laos and subsequently by the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in 1935, who reported them in great numbers and speculated about their connections to Assam within a wider salt trade network.

The stone jars from the sites in Meghalaya form the extreme westerly extension of the stone jar culture reported from Northeast India. The results of preliminary fieldwork undertaken in February 2020 across the Saipung reserved forest of Meghalaya led to the discovery and documentation of eight previously unreported sites.

A small-scale excavation of four jars in the East Jaintia Hills has helped to provide key insights into the mortuary practices of the people who made and used these stone jars.

The stone jar sites have been found in extreme south-eastern parts of the East Jaintia Hills District in Meghalaya within an area that spread for 100 sq. km are remains of numerous clusters of prehistoric stone jars which have not been previously reported.

These jar sites found in Meghalaya are definitely a part of the much larger and more elaborate cultural remains that have been reported from the Xieng Khouang and Laung Phrabang Provinces of Laos.

Researchers involved in the study say it is apparent that the jar sites of the East Jaintia Hills represent the extreme westerly extension of the North Cachar Hills jar sites of the Barail range. The jar sites from the region are found along the gentle hills on both sides of the Kopili river which transverse between the present states of Assam and Meghalaya.

“There is a clear pattern that stone jar sites are found mostly on flat areas on top of the undulating hills with reference to the general slope of the specific landscape. They are, however, mostly distributed on strips of land where there are naturally occurring sandstone outcrops and do not seem influenced by the presence of any streams or rivers,” the study states.

“There seems to be a clear pattern in the broader picture of the stone jar sites that the East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya and the adjoining North Cachar Hills sites of Assam are the extreme westerly extension of the stone jar culture. The megalithic jar sites of the Jaintia Hills are important in understanding the archaeological cultures of Northeast India, especially when considered in association with the complementary anthropological and ethnographic information on the cultural practices of the communities in the area,” the study adds.

The additional data recovered from such ethnographic records could prove vital in establishing a more concrete understanding of the jar culture and the people connected with such a practice.

Researchers say future research should focus on better understanding the placement of the megalithic jars and their associated mortuary activity and undertake provenance studies on the source of the jars and the large circular slabs.

“Further additional dates along with fine-grained multi-proxy approaches are needed from the two adjoining states of Northeast India in order to understand past mobility behaviour of the jar people across these contiguous regions of North Cachar Hills and Jaintia Hills,” researchers say.

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