Jomon Period Stone Ritual Object

Jomon Period Stone Ritual Object

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Jomon Period Stone Ritual Object - History

2002 Volume 9 Issue 14 Pages 127-136

  • Published: November 01, 2002 Received: April 15, 2002 Available on J-STAGE: February 16, 2009 Accepted: July 30, 2002 Advance online publication: - Revised: -

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Magical or ritual objects which had a long history of intimate connections with the spiritual life of the Jomon period have traditionally been studied as so-called 'secondary tools' within Jomon archaeology. Within this category, sekibo or 'stone rods' occupy an important position. Stone rods can be seen as artifacts that are representative of the Jomon period.
Stone rods have mainly been discovered from the eastern half of the archipelago and so far most research has also been conducted in that area. Recently, however, research on Jomon stone rods has been increasing in western Japan. In particular, Seiji Kobayashi and Yutaka Nakamura have compiled and published an exhaustive list of related materials. However, some of the stone rods contained in Kawachi Heiya Isekigun no Dotai [The Evolution of the Kawachi Plain Site Complex] (Osaka Bunkazai Center, eds. 1987- 2000) were unfortunately omitted from their work due to the unsatisfactory level of publication in that site report. This article, therefore, attempts to supplement these published materials by a preliminary re-examination of the stone rods excavated from the various sites around the southern shore of the Paleo-Kawachi Lake, the central part of present-day Osaka Prefecture. As a result, it is shown that in this region there are relatively many finds from Yayoi-period features and thus we can confirm the existence of "Yayoi-period stone rods" which are different from those of the Jomon period. Furthermore, if we look at related data from neighboring areas, we can confirm the same phenomenon across the whole Kinki region.
In this region at the beginning of the Yayoi period, a Yayoi group with the new technology of wetrice cultivation and new Ongagawa-type domestic pottery moved into an area settled by existing Jomon groups and for a certain while these two groups coexisted together. Later, the new Yayoi culture became established over the whole region. Against this background, this article shows that most of the "Yayoi-period stone rods" discussed here date from a limited time span from the beginning of the Yayoi, when Jomon-type groups and Yayoi-type groups were coexisting, through until the start of the Middle Yayoi phase. This phenomenon is quite conspicuous in the Osaka Bay area and is especially noticeable around the periphery of the area that produced the oldest ditched Yayoi settlements in the Kinki.
In existing research, stone rods that possibly belong to the Yayoi period have usually been interpreted as objects of a different genealogy that were produced through principles that differed from those behind the Jomon rods. There has not been detailed discussion of those examples that appear to show a Jomon inheritance. The stone rods discussed in this article, however, also show their Jomon lineage in their morphology. If we reanalyze the contexts in which these ceremonial objects were maintained by each group, then the following facts become clear.
We can suggest that, at the beginning of the Yayoi period, in the dramatic process of encounter, co-existence and fusion between Jomon and Yayoi groups, very close individual and social contacts were probably achieved between both groups from first contact. This was the required prerequisite for two different groups to coexist in the same place. In the next stage when Yayoi culture became universally established, stone rods did not disappear but continued to be firmly rooted, suggesting that important elements of the new Yayoi culture derived from existing Jomon groups. This constitutes proof that the arrival of Yayoi groups was not a sort of invasion in which the existing Jomon people were conquered and exterminated, but that rather the Jomon-Yayoi transition saw the very rapid fusion of two different groups without major friction or conflict.

Omori Katsuyama Stone Circle

Omori Katsuyama stone circle is located at the tip of a 145-m-high tongue-shaped hill on the northeastern side of the foot of Mt. Iwaki in western Aomori Prefecture. It is mainly composed of a stone circle from the first half of the Final Jomon period (approx. 1,000 BCE).

The stone circle from the Final Jomon period, which is rare in Japan, has an elliptical shape measuring 48.5 m in diameter and 39.1 m in minor axis, and was constructed by preparing a circular hill-like bank on a leveled plateau, and then arranging 77 combined stones along the margin of the embankment. The arrangement of the combined stones and other unique aspects of the stone circle make it very important as material evidence of the development and transition of large monuments in the Jomon period.

Earthenware of the first half of the Final Jomon period, stone tools for hunting and collecting such as stone arrowheads, stone spoons, stone pestles and stone plates, and rock plates and stone swords for rituals have been unearthed. Among these, approximately 250 disk-like stone objects unearthed around the stone circle are considered to have been used for certain rituals related to the stone circle, although their specific use is unknown. The existence of these relics distinguishes the property. Pottery demonstrating the advanced craftsmanship of the Kamegaoka pottery culture has also been unearthed, presenting valuable evidence of the Jomon culture, which matured based on stable settlements.

The site is located at the point where the sun sets over the summit of Mt. Iwaki on the winter solstice, and the remains of a large pit dwelling around 100 m southwest of the stone circle show that the structure was constructed at the point where Mt. Iwaki can directly be seen in the back. These can be described as outstanding examples of systematic land use giving elaborate consideration to the environment.

Jomon Period sites to be added to World Heritage list

The Sannai Maruyama site is one of the Jomon Period remains found across Hokkaido and the northern Tohoku region, shown here in Aomori on May 24. (Ryo Ikeda)

Archaeological sites in Hokkaido and the northern Tohoku region dating to the prehistoric Jomon Period, which lasted more than 10,000 years, are expected to soon be added to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list.

If officially approved, they would be the first pre-Christian era historic sites in Japan to be listed as World Heritage sites.

The Jomon Pottery Culture Period (c. 14,500 B.C.-1,000 B.C.) sites in question include the notable Sannai Maruyama site, which hosts the remains of a large settlement and is designated as a special national historic site by Japan.

The advisory body that conducts preliminary reviews recommended the sites be added to the list, and the final decision will be made during the World Heritage Committee online meeting that starts on July 16, government officials said.

The UNESCO World Heritage Center in Paris notified the Japanese government on May 26 of the recommendation for listing by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

The Jomon sites up for consideration comprise 17 archaeological locations in Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate and Akita prefectures.

The Odai Yamamoto site in Sotogahama, Aomori Prefecture, is where the world’s oldest class of earthenware pieces were discovered.

The Sannai Maruyama site in Aomori, which dates to the middle Jomon Period, is home to the remains of a large settlement where clay dolls were excavated. The archaeological finds there show the development of ancient rituals and ceremonies.

The Oyu Stone Circles in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture, contain ritual remains, mainly consisting of stone circles.

The Japanese government had recommended the addition of the ancient remains to UNESCO on the grounds that they reveal through lasting physical evidence the process of how the Jomon people established their settlements and obtained food through hunting, gathering and fishing.

They also show how humankind lived before the development of agricultural culture, and add to our understanding of the elaborate and complex spiritual culture the Jomon people developed, it said.

Terms Related to the Jomon Sites

Last glacial period

The most recent Glacial period, which began 70,000 years ago and ended 10,000 years ago. The island of Hokkaido was connected to the Eurasian continent at the time due to low sea levels resulting from reduced temperatures. Rapid cooling occurred approximately 13,000 years ago before the Post-glacial period began. This final part of the era is called the Late Glacial period.

Post-glacial period

A geological epoch dating from 10,000 years ago to the present day. The term Post-glacial is used synonymously with Holocene.

Ice age

A period of long-term reduction in the earth’s temperature, resulting in the growth of polar ice sheets and glaciers. There have been at least four ice ages in the past separated by warmer interglacial periods.

Holocene period

The most recent geological epoch running from 10,000 years ago when the Last Glacial period ended to the present. Forestland thrived due to global warming, resulting in the formation of the Japanese archipelago’s current environment.

Jomon transgression

A sea-level rise seen around the Japanese archipelago during the Jomon period. The level at the warmest time from the last half of the Initial Jomon period to the Early Jomon period was 2 or 3 m higher than today, and current inland areas were submerged.

Marine transgression and regression

A sea-level rise caused by climate change is called a marine transgression, and a sea-level fall caused by climate change is called a marine regression.

Radiocarbon dating

A dating technique based on the characteristic of carbon-14 (14C, a radioactive isotope) whose abundance ratio is constant in living organisms but decreases at a constant rate after their death.


The term ritual in Japanese is generally used in reference to worship of the gods, but also refers to a primitive form of belief involving prayer for prosperity.


A belief that a spirit is inherent in animals, plants and various other things.

Ainu offering ceremony

A ceremony performed by Ainu people to separate the souls of animals from their bodies and send them off to the world of the gods. A typical example is iyomante – a ceremony in which bear cubs are scarified and a banquet is held.

Summer/winter solstice and vernal equinox

A concept for seasonal classification based on the movement of the sun in consideration of the summer and winter solstice and the vernal and autumnal equinox.


A place where people settled consisting of living areas, graveyards, production areas and dumping grounds. Such areas provide information on civil engineering, architecture, livelihoods, the burial system, trading and various other aspects of Jomon life.

Shell midden

An accumulation of discarded shells, food residues and other waste. Human bones, dog remains and bone and antler objects are also unearthed in such places.

Stone circle

A circular stone arrangement measuring 40 to 50 m in diameter related to the burial system and rituals.

Earthwork burial circle

A cemetery from the Late Jomon period located in Hokkaido. The site was constructed by digging a circular pit and piling the excavated soil around it. The largest such cemetery discovered measures 75 m in diameter and 5.4 m in height.

Wetland site

A site formed in a layer containing large amounts of underground water. Seeds, animal/plant remains, woody artifacts and bone and antler objects are often unearthed with their organic parts intact in such places.


Remains of a giant structure built with great effort, such as a stone circle, earthwork burial circle or mound.

Pit grave

An elliptical or circular pit for the burial of human bodies. Graveyards were constructed in certain parts of settlements.

Pit dwelling

A building with a floor at the bottom of a pit and a roof supported by pillars. Pit dwellings were used as houses or factories.

Storage pit

A pit for food storage. The cross section of a typical storage pit is flask-shaped. Nuts are sometimes unearthed at such sites.

Burial pot

A grave with an earthenware coffin for infants. Secondary burial pots for adults were also created in Aomori Prefecture and elsewhere during the Late Jomon period.

Pillar-supported building

A structure with a raised floor supported by pillars erected in a pit or a floor at ground level (not including pit dwellings).

Earthwork mound

A place where large amounts of pottery, stone tools and other items were disposed of along with soil. Earthwork mounds are considered to be related to rituals because many clay figurines have been unearthed there.


A raised area made by heaping up soil.

Bone and antler objects

Tools made of animal bones, antlers, teeth and tusks, including fishing tools (e.g., hooks and harpoons), needles, spatulas and accessories (e.g., hairpins, decorative belts).

Dedicated item

An offering made at ceremonies involving prayers.

Goggle-eyed clay figurine

A clay figurine from the first half of the Kamegaoka culture period with large eyes resembling Inuit snow goggles.

Fine ware

Elaborately made decorative earthenware with a variety of types, including deep bowls, regular bowls and shallow bowls with a pedestal, vases, spouted vessels, carefully ground glazeware, and red-pigmented pottery. The non-decorative simple pottery type is called crude earthenware. Most excavated pieces of this type were deep bowls for daily use.

Mikoshiba-Chojakubo stone tool assemblage

Stone tools associated with the origins of pottery, including partly ground stone axes, large stone spears and gravers.


The site consists of two large stone circles located on an artificially flattened plateau on the left bank of the Oyu River, a tributary of the Yoneshiro River in northeastern Akita Prefecture. The site was discovered in 1931, with detailed archaeological excavations taking place in 1946, and in 1951-1952.

The larger circle, named the “Manza(万座)” circle has a diameter of 46 meters, and is the largest stone circle found in Japan. A number of reconstructions of Jomon period dwellings have been built around the site. The slightly smaller circle, named the “Nonakadō(野中堂)” circle, is 42 meters in diameter and is located around 90 meters away, separated from the “Manza” circle by Akita Prefectural Route 66. Each circle is made from rounded river stones brought from another river approximately 7 kilometers away. Each circle in concentric, with and inner and an outer ring separated by an open strip approximately 8 meters wide. [2] Each circle contains smaller clusters of stone, including standing stones surrounded by elongated stones in a radiating orientation, forming a sundial which points toward the sunset on the summer solstice and allows for calculation of the winter solstice, the vernal equinox and the sun's movements. [3]

Each circle is surrounded by the remains of buildings, storage pits and midden, and clay figurines, clayware and stoneware (including everyday pottery), stone swords and objects have been discovered. Although the form of the stone circles made have been based on the shape of circular settlements, there is no indication of permanent settlement on the site.

Jômon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaidô, Northern Tôhoku, and other regions

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


This Jômon property is a group of unique archaeological sites representing a culture that continuously occupied the Japanese archipelago for nearly 10,000 years in the natural environment sustained by the humid temperate climate of the Holocene epoch, living in permanent settlements supported primarily by hunting, fishing, and gathering. This makes it distinct from Neolithic cultures in other regions of the earth which were established on agriculture and animal husbandry. The property possesses outstanding universal value as a testimony of a unique cultural tradition representing the way in which human beings coexisted with nature over an immense period of time in a specific geo-cultural region of our planet.

While Jômon culture spread throughout the Japanese archipelago, it displayed particularly noteworthy development in eastern Japan during the era in which broadleaf deciduous forests extended through much of the region, as stable food supplies and the evolution of the techniques used in securing them led to the expansion of areas of permanent settlement, larger communities, and a sudden increase in the number of earthen figurines and stone ritual implements.

Especially in the region centering on Hokkaidô and northern Tôhoku, a number of the distinct cultural zones representative of the Jômon period flourished, now characterized by their pottery types, such as the Entô, Tokoshinai, and Kamegaoka cultures. The Kamegaoka pottery culture in particular spread its influence to distant areas, reaching the Kinki and Chûgoku regions of Honshû Island, and the islands of Shikoku and Kyûshû. The Jômon sites under consideration are located in a variety of different topographical areas from the seacoast to river watersheds and hill country, and include the remains of villages, shell mounds, stone circles, and archaeological sites remaind in wetlands and give dramatic evidence of the process of establishment of permanent settlements and the adaptation of these cultures to the abundant food resources of the broadleaf deciduous forests, the seacoast, and rivers and streams.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Jômon culture is an exceptional example in world history of a Neolithic culture that flourished and matured over more than 10,000 years in permanent settlements sustained by a mode of production involving hunting, fishing, and gathering and the coexistence of human beings and nature in the humid temperature climate of the Holocene epoch.

The group of archaeological sites that serves as material evidence of this cultural tradition is particularly evident in eastern Japan from the time that broadleaf deciduous forests became stably established throughout this region. These sites possess outstanding universal value as a representation of the way in which human beings coexisted with nature over an immense period of time in a specific geo-cultural region of our planet.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The authenticity of all of the constituent sites has been amply maintained from the perspective of the archaeological sites buried underground and the landscape they comprise.

The integrity of the properties is also established by the fact that all the elements indispensable to any discussion of Jômon culture are present, from villages and shell mounds to stone circles and archaeological sites remained in wetlands.

Comparison with other similar properties

Comparable Neolithic archaeological sites inscribed on the World Heritage List are either sites of cave paintings and ritual monuments or sites of tool production. There are no properties comparable to this unique group of archaeological sites, which demonstrate a way of life that continued over such a long span period of the Neolithic era.

Jomon Period Stone Ritual Object - History

2500BC), with regards to an important but frequently overlooked exchange item: amber, which was frequently made into beads or pendants. In Japan, a great deal of important research on beadstone ornament exchange has focussed on sourcing and establishing the extent of the circulation (by means of compiling production and distribution sites), and reconstructing the production processes and typologies. However, although much information is present in excavation site reports concerning structures and artefacts at these sites, relatively little attention has been devoted to the social context in which these ornaments circulated, and the reasons for the appeal of the ornaments leading to such high demand, or the motivation behind the production activities. This paper deals with the materiality of amber, suggesting how its unique physical attributes and the use of ornaments made of this specific material may have mediated social relations in the hunter-gatherer communities of Jomon Japan, as well as their possible role in creating specific identities. Some preliminary evidence will be presented to support the hypothesis that amber ornaments from Awashidai at the Pacific Coast were made by and for hunters, creating social relations among hunters as a group, and may have been used both for sympathetic magic, as well as a sign of personal identity. A brief comparison with the materiality and use context of jade items will be made.

Jomon Period Stone Ritual Object - History

Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture, and design exhibitions at art museums, galleries, and alternative spaces around Japan.

Goggle-eyed clay figurine, Korekawa-Nakai site, Aomori Prefecture, final Jomon period, Important Cultural Property. Photo © Korekawa Archaeological Institution

The northernmost prefecture on Japan's main island of Honshu, Aomori has some 3,000 Jomon-period archaeological sites -- even its capital city lays claim to a whopping 400. The prefecture is home to half of the 17 sites in northern Japan that are now under review for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list. In fall 2020 I visited three of these and their affiliated museums, as well as the excellent Aomori Prefectural Museum. There is a staggering body of material still coming from these excavations, which curators and other scholars continue to study and debate for insights into the Jomon: a prehistoric, pre-agricultural society that subsisted across Japan's islands for more than 12 millennia, and whose people created some striking art along the way.

Spouted vessel, Korekawa-Nakai site, Aomori Prefecture, final Jomon period, Important Cultural Property. Pottery shapes and their decorative styles became more elaborate toward the end of the Jomon period. A special exhibition on spouted vessels, believed to have been made for ceremonial purposes, is now showing at the Korekawa Archaeological Institution through 5 May. Photo © Korekawa Archaeological Institution

The Jomon period (13,000-400 BCE) is, roughly, the stretch of time between the Paleolithic age of stone tools and the beginnings of full-fledged rice cultivation on the Japanese archipelago. It is characterized by hunter-gatherer-fisher communities that had transitioned to sedentism, as suggested by the increased production of decorated pottery, personal ornaments, and ritual objects. The Jomon people of northern Japan had an abundant source of nuts in the deciduous forests, and used bows and arrows, spears, and game pits to hunt. At the Sannai Maruyama settlement in the present-day city of Aomori, goose, duck, pheasant, deer, rabbit, and wild boar meat were all on the menu. Gravesite studies show that the people who lived here kept dogs, and that these likely hunting companions were buried with signs of respect. Sannai Maruyama residents also fished the waters of Mutsu Bay and as far away as the Tsugaru Strait, using hooks, harpoons and nets. Clam, octopus, squid, and mantis shrimp remains have been found along with those of halibut, herring, shark, salmon, trout, amberjack, and cod.

Mounded-earth pit dwellings like this one at the Sannai Maruyama site are based on evidence drawn from excavations.

Sewing needles were made from the ribs and metacarpals of game thighbones became spears. Fish hooks were rendered from antlers hammers from the antler base. These early people harvested sea salt, too, collecting it in earthenware vessels, boiling it down, and drying it in the sun. Whether its production was for trade, to preserve foods, for ritual purposes, or a combination of the above is unknown. Boar-tusk ornaments found in Hokkaido, and obsidian implements found in Aomori, point to the trade that took place between communities of Hokkaido and northern Honshu. Items made of jade and amber and repaired with tar -- all materials that were not available locally -- indicate exchanges with far-flung places as well. Jade unearthed in Aomori has been traced to a quarry in Niigata, more than 700 kilometers to the south.

The Komakino stone circle is just 20 minutes by car from the Sannai Maruyama site. Together they make for a full day of exploration. Komakino may have been a ceremonial hub for a number of settlements in the area.

Here's a bit of global perspective. Around the time Paleolithic artists were decorating the Lascaux caves (17,000-15,000 BCE) in present-day France, potters were already firing earthenware at Odai Yamamoto, the oldest of the Jomon sites in Aomori. When the central megaliths of Stonehenge were raised in 2500 BCE, the settlements at Sannai Maruyama and Korekawa were in full swing -- as was Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, one of the world's first major cities. The Komakino stone circle (2000 BCE) is 500 years younger than the Giza pyramid complex, and predates the Parthenon by about 1,500.

It's fascinating to walk these sites today, pore over their related exhibits, and wonder at the lifeways of these ancient people. They were among the first on the archipelago to fire pottery, and were already using lacquer and vibrant red ocher pigment at least 9,000 years ago. Beautifully carved wooden lacquerware of three millennia ago, found at the Korekawa site in what is now the city of Hachinohe, can be seen at the Korekawa Archaeological Institution. At Sannai Maruyama there is a stately road, built by Jomon hands and now restored to its original dimensions, that leads to the reconstructed buildings and mound excavation sites of the former settlement. Bar the odd electrical tower or fellow masked traveler in jeans and you can imagine, as you walk along it, how a Jomon adventurer might have felt upon nearing the village. When you learn that the Jomon had lined both sides of this avenue with the graves of their dead, the feeling of coming "home" to a protected place watched over by elders is even stronger.

Unearthed lacquered wooden vessel, Korekawa-Nakai site, Aomori Prefecture, final Jomon period, Important Cultural Property. Waterlogged in low wetlands, wooden and earthenware artifacts that would otherwise have been lost to the ages remain in startlingly fine shape. Photo © Korekawa Archaeological Institution

Reconstructed post-in-ground buildings, earthen mounds filled with potsherds and other artifacts, a clay pit, burial sites, and this reinstated avenue are all part of the experience at the Sannai Maruyama site, where surveys are still underway. When I was there a band of experts was studying an excavated water channel.

The Komakino stone circle was discovered in 1989 by high-school students on a class archaeological expedition. The land on which it sits had been used in the Edo period (1603-1867) for pasturing horses and later, for farming. It was known for the conspicuous number of large rocks scattered across it, some of which had been moved off to the side over the years. When the students conducted a boring survey they found stones beneath the soil set in a circular pattern. The rest, as they say, is history. We now know that the circle's flat arena, which sits midway along a gentle incline, is in fact the earthwork of Jomon engineers, who cut the slope by removing soil from its higher end and mounding it below. Also discovered since are the remains of pit dwellings, a dumping ground, and waterworks. At 22 acres in size, the site is just right for a leisurely stroll of an hour or so -- more if you take time to sit under the oak, chestnut, and walnut trees descended from Jomon times.

Studies of the Komakino stone circle suggest that the site may have been designed to reference the summer and winter solstices as well as key landmarks of the area: Mutsu Bay and the four mountains Moya, Hakkoda, Iwaki, and Manogami.

An abandoned elementary school nearby was converted and reopened in 2014 as the Komakino-kan, a museum dedicated to the study of Jomon culture in general, and preservation of this site in particular. True to the spirit of the building, the exhibits are child-friendly. They explain, for example, how an excavation is conducted step-by-step, and how the Jomon people transported the stone circle's 2,900 rocks uphill from the Arakawa River 70 meters below. (The captions are also in English, and rendered with the smartest translations I've seen anywhere.) There are plenty of hands-on exhibits and even real artifacts that can be held and touched. If you would like to learn what a Jomon coprolite is, there's a matter-of-fact display on that, too -- but this one is behind glass.

Lacquered earthen vessels, Korekawa-Nakai site, Aomori Prefecture, final Jomon period, Important Cultural Properties. Photo © Korekawa Archaeological Institution

To those who have heard of it, Jomon art primarily conjures up images of earthenware, especially pottery decorated with the rope inlay characteristic of early Jomon and for which the period is named, and the ever-endearing dogu -- anthropomorphic clay figures believed to have been used in ceremonial rites. (As iconic of Jomon culture as they are, very little is understood about them.) Lesser known is the vivid red lacquerware of the period. An entire gallery is dedicated to it at the Korekawa Archaeological Institution in Hachinohe, showcasing works of wood, basketry, and lacquer-coated earthenware. Lacquering is such a complicated process -- tapping the urushi tree, refining its sap, preparing pigment, building up the layers as they harden, polishing, and so forth. That it was mastered essentially in the middle of woods millennia ago -- having spread from traditions in China, Korea, and Vietnam, no less -- is fascinating to ponder. Ten years of growth are required before an urushi tree is ready for harvest. It's believed that the Jomon tended groves of them to maintain a steady supply of the sap, which they also used for practical purposes like weatherizing bows and other wooden tools, and strengthening their pottery.

The discovery, in the early 1990s, of the remains of earthfast pillars was the first evidence that large buildings of post-in-ground construction -- not mere pit dwellings -- had once stood on the Sannai Maruyama site. Photo © APTINET Aomori Prefecture

One of the largest Jomon archaeological sites discovered to date, Sannai Maruyama was a year-round settlement that lasted for 1,700 years until 2200 BCE. It sits on a rich basin where the Okidate River flows into Mutsu Bay. The site is vast -- more than 100 acres -- and prolific. More than 40,000 boxes of relics have been recovered to date: Stone tools and earthenware. Hairpins fashioned of animal bone. Earrings of stone and clay. Shell armbands and pendants carved from tusks and antlers. And of course, the inimitable dogu. No less than 1,958 items excavated here have been named Important Cultural Properties. One on display at the affiliated Sanmaru Museum is a bag woven of conifer bark. Estimated to be 5,800 years old, it is the only work of such organic material found anywhere in the country that is still largely intact. That it was excavated with half a walnut shell inside telescopes the mind's eye right to the hands of its former owner.

A bank of windows inside the museum allows visitors to observe staff at work cleaning, cataloguing, and restoring artifacts. So many potsherds have emerged from the Sannai Maruyama site that an entire wall, rising six meters between two floors, has been attractively decorated with 5,000 of them. In another section of the building they are stockpiled in floor recesses and covered with plexiglass. The museum offers workshops to make different crafts, and you can restore yourself when you've seen and done it all at the restaurant with a bowl of Jomon-style noodles made of chestnut and acorn flour.

Jar with design of hunting scene, Late Jomon period (c. 2500-1000 BCE), prefectural treasure, Aomori Prefectural Museum

Though it is presently closed for renovations, the Aomori Prefectural Museum is one to keep in mind for its comprehensive overview of local archaeological sites and artifacts from the Paleolithic age to the Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 CE), when rice cultivation began. This is the place to learn how the shapes and styles of Jomon pottery changed across the millennia in between. And while Jomon designs are famously abstract, the museum has a rare vessel decorated with the narrative tale of a hunting scene. The Fuindo Collection, bequeathed by a native son of Aomori, holds some 12,000 Jomon artifacts, a smorgasbord of new favorite things to discover -- earthenware vessels and dogu figurines of all kinds, of course, but also beads made of jade, clay and stone, antler combs and lacquered bracelets, ear ornaments, woven plant-fiber textiles, even clay imprints of children's hands and feet. Whether these last objects were made in celebration or mourning is unknown, but the expression of love speaks clearly through the ages.

Photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. All photo permissions are courtesy of the respective sites and the Aomori Prefectural Government.

Jomon Period Stone Ritual Object - History

Mystery shrouds the ancient Oshoro circle

Japan Times - January 6, 2009

In 1861 at Oshoro, southwestern Hokkaido, a party of herring fishermen, migrants from Honshu, were laying the foundation for a fishing port when they saw taking shape beneath their shovels a mysterious spectacle - a broad circular arrangement of large rocks, strikingly symmetrical, evidently man-made. What could it be? An Ainu fortress? They would have been astonished to learn, as in fact they never did, that the Oshoro Stone Circle is a relic from a time before even war let alone fortresses likely existed in Japan.

Oshoro today is part of the city of Otaru, on its western fringe, 20 km from the city center and 60 km west of Sapporo.

The Late Jomon period (circa 2400-1000 B.C.) was an age of northward migration. The north was warming, and severe rainfall was ravaging the established Jomon sites, primarily in the vicinity of today's Tokyo and Nagoya.

Perhaps resettlement stimulated thought, for it coincided with a novel Jomon institution - the cemetery. "By devoting a special area to burials," writes J. Edward Kidder in "The Cambridge History of Japan," "Late Jomon people were isolating the dead, allowing the gap to be bridged by mediums who eventually drew the rational world of the living further away from the spirit world of the dead."

The Oshoro Stone Circle was probably a cemetery. It was other things as well, but primarily that, says Naoaki Ishikawa, chief curator of the Otaru Museum, where many of the finds from around this stone circle can be viewed.

It is one of about 30 Late Jomon stone circles scattered through northern Japan. In terms of size it ranks about midway between the smallest enclosures and the largest one at Oyu, Akita Prefecture, bounded by thousands of stones.

No bones have been found to make an airtight case of the cemetery theory, but relatively few Jomon bones have been found anywhere, the acid in the soil claiming them long before the archaeologist's trowel can.

The first archaeologists at work in Japan were American and European. Their heyday was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Japanese curiosity regarding the remote past was satisfied by nationalistic myths accepted - on pain of harsh punishment as the Japanese government in the 1930s and '40s claimed control over thought - as fact.

World War II ended, and, as though to make up for lost time, Japan plunged into archaeology. It became a passion, and remains one to this day. Historian William Wayne Farris, in "Sacred Texts and Buried Treasure," counts (as of 1998) some 4,000 archaeologists active in Japan - 20 times the number in Great Britain.

A prewar pioneer in Japan was the Scottish archaeologist Neil Munro, whose "Prehistoric Japan" was published in 1908. He thought at first the stone circles might be astronomical observatories akin to Stonehenge in southwest England. Not so, asserts Otaru Museum's Ishikawa. The question remains open, but calendrical significance has yet to be established. "In my opinion," says Ishikawa, "the only thing Stonehenge and the Oshoro Stone Circle have in common is that they're both made of stone."

What you see at Oshoro today - it's a wilder-looking spot than its physical proximity to the city would suggest, set among farmers' fields and hills overlooking the sea - is an oval rather than a circular expanse, 33 meters north to south, 22 meters east to west, bordered by granite rocks, the tallest of which are about hip-high.

Some are rectangular, others rounded so smoothly you might think they had been sculpted, but no, "The rounded ones are called columnar joint stones," explains Ishikawa - "very common in the area, though some geologists say many of the stones were quarried at Cape Shiripa, 8 km away."

The site is a shadow of what it was at its height circa 1500 B.C. - a victim, first of 19th-century Japanese pioneers reclaiming Hokkaido from the wilderness and eager to appropriate handy rocks as construction material second, of well-intentioned but misguided "cleanup campaigns," the first in 1908 preparatory to a royal visit by the Crown Prince, the future Emperor Taisho.

Why regard it as a cemetery? Partly, says Ishikawa, because of the large number of unidentifiable, and probably ritual, objects unearthed in the vicinity partly because of the many tools found unbroken, suggesting grave goods partly also because "graves are among the few things that would have justified the degree of effort involved. Constructing a stone circle is a major undertaking. You have to flatten the land, quarry the stones, transport them, lay them out. Only something of the highest importance could have taken people away from their daily hunting and gathering."

Very likely also, he says, it was a market, a trading center for the exchange of tools, local foods, regional products, lacquer - and information, gossip. What would people have said to each other? In what language? Not Japanese, writes archaeologist Richard Pearson in the International Jomon Culture Conference Newsletter. Proto-Japanese, he says, only begins with the succeeding Yayoi culture. Ishikawa raises another possibility for the Oshoro Stone Circle - that it could have been a trash dump, which would explain the roughly 400,000 tool and pottery fragments so far unearthed there.


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