New Colombo Plan Sends JCU Students to Laos For Research Trip


James Cook University archaeology students visited Laos on a research trip to study the Plain of Jars, with funding from the New Colombo Plan.

By Nick Palmisano

Eight JCU College of Arts, Society and Education (CASE) archaeology students returned from a research trip to the Plain of Jars, an ancient site in Laos, with funding from the New Colombo Plan covering their travel costs.

Six of the eight students received grants from the New Colombo mobility grant to assist them with travel and research expenses.

The New Colombo Plan is an initiative from the Liberal Government, an evolution of Labour’s AsiaBound program, which was designed to provide opportunities for Australian tertiary students to visit South East Asia for study and research experience.

The NCP opens up scholarship options for both long and short term exchanges, including mobility grants designed for research trips like the Laos project.

Archaeology major Hollie Gill received $3000 to fund her journey to Laos which was essential for her to take part in the project.

“The grant covered all of my flights as well as some extra costs like part of my accommodation, says Hollie.

“Gaining experience in the field is an essential part of any degree, especially archaeology, and would not have been financially possible for me without this grant.”

Hollie hopes that the Laos project brings more awareness about the situation in Laos, and encourages discussion around its leftover explosives.

“I think archaeological work at the Plain of Jars will assist in developing and promoting tourism within the area, especially if it is eventually declared a World Heritage Site, says Hollie.

“This will hopefully bring funding for more extensive clearing of the UXO for the communities, as well as assisting the rehabilitation programs in place.”

ARTEFACT: Lan Xang Smoking Pipe found at the Plain of Jars

ARTEFACT: Lan Xang Smoking Pipe found at the Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars Site

The Plain of Jars is a grassy plateau in central Laos’ Xieng Khouang province, surrounded by mountains, creating a bowl like valley that was once home to a Bronze Age culture.

This civilization is assumed to be responsible for the creation of hundreds of stone jars of various sizes, some only three feet high, with the larger ones measuring ten feet. Archaeologists don’t yet know their true purpose or origin but there are many theories.

JCU archaeology professor and research trip organizer, Dr Nigel Chang, offers one of the more accepted explanations.

“The jars may have something to do with people burying their dead, or filling them up with crematory remains.

“The problem is the jars were discovered a long time ago by international scientists, and they’ve been known about in the country for a lot longer.

“Most of the jars have been heavily looted and are now missing a lot of artefacts, so they’re a bit of a mystery to work out what they’re for, and we don’t know who the people who made them were,” he said.

During the Vietnam War, the US military dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos. Today it is estimated that there are 80 million unexploded bombs still remaining in the country.

Unexploded Ordinance Teams accompanied Nigel, his students, and other researchers, clearing areas of explosives before archaeological work could begin. The process is painstaking, as Nigel says.

“Every area we work has to be cleared one way or another, by people who know what they’re doing so we don’t find unexploded bombs when we’re excavating. We do a lot of traditional surveys, walking across the land very precisely, very carefully, and that becomes much harder to do,” says Nigel.