In Japan, there are many documented Japanese Jomon stone circles. How and why were these structures created? Simon Kaner investigates the information these mysterious constructions can provide regarding a significant period of Japanese prehistory.
Japanese Jomon Stone Circles: Exploring
When compared to other foraging communities, the Jomon people of northern Japan were exceptional monument builders. They built a variety of these sites, including stone circles, wooden pillar settings, shell middens, bank-enclosed cemeteries, and embankments containing significant amounts of material remains. All of these sites demonstrated the ability to make sizable labor investments and likely also a high degree of forethought. Compared to hunter-gatherer societies, agricultural societies are more frequently linked to both of these skills.
The Jomon monuments imply a strong sense of engagement with specific locations in their landscapes as well as an emphasis on ritual and ceremonialism. With the stone circles mostly dating to the later phases of c. 2500-300 BC, the study of such monuments and the variety of activities that could have been carried out in their shadow, as well as Jomon settlements, sheds light on activity during the longest time-period in Japanese archaeology (spanning c. 14,500-300 BC). In the summer of 2021, 17 Jomon sites in northern Japan will be designated as World Heritage Sites, underscoring its significance.
Japanese people refer these circular formations of stones as “stone circles,” which are made up of rings of rocks weighing anywhere from a few kilograms to more than 100 kilograms. These are not the megalithic structures that readers in Europe are accustomed to seeing, such as those at Stonehenge and Avebury in Great Britain. Even so, there are certain similarities between the Japanese and European sites, such as astronomical alignments, serving as the center of seasonal celebrations, and having rites associated with burial and the ancestors. In fact, the Stonehenge Visitor Center will host a brand-new exhibition this fall.
In Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan, the author will discuss little-known connections between Stonehenge studies and the history of Japanese archaeology as well as some of the stone circles built around the end of the Jomon period.
William Gowland (1842–1922), a Victorian mining engineer and metallurgist, is the subject of the exhibition’s opening section. He was one of a generation of foreign experts hired by the Meiji government to modernize Japan, and he lived there for 16 years. This strategy came after almost 250 years of the country’s self-imposed seclusion from the outside world during the Tokugawa shoguns’ rule during the Edo era (1603-1868, with the policy of seclusion lasting from the 1620s until 1853). Gowland worked for the recently founded Osaka Mint (which is still in operation). He looked at 400 mounded tombs that were built between the third and seventh centuries AD, some of which were megalithic in nature.
Gowland concentrated on writing up his Japanese discoveries after returning to the UK in 1888 and selling his sizable collection of Japanese archaeological artifacts as well as his archive to the British Museum. He was hired in 1901 to work at Stonehenge by the Society of Antiquaries of London, where he put his Japanese archaeological training to good use by conducting a modest excavation as part of the resetting of a huge stone that had fallen.
Gowland’s subsequent report is noteworthy because it was the first to make the case convincingly that Stonehenge was constructed by people who did not use metals. It also made clear comparisons between sun worship in prehistoric Britain and that of the imperial family of Japan, which claimed direct descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu, and those practices in prehistoric Britain. Japanese woodblock prints, particularly pictures of sizable stone blocks being carried without the assistance of technology, were used to illustrate Gowland’s findings. Techniques to accomplish this were well known in Japan because the country’s castles are recognized for having imposing stone walls, or ishigaki.
Ancient Japanese Jomon Circles: Set in stone
The twin configurations of stone rings at Oyu in Akita Prefecture are the most well-known Jomon stone circles. These were built and put to use between 4,200 and 2,700 years ago, and are known as the Manza and Nonakado circles. These locations were first found in 1931, then thoroughly studied in the 1940s and 1950s, then again from 1984 to 2008. The stone circles themselves attracted most of the initial attention. Both include a central sundial feature surrounded by concentric rings of stone settings, the largest of which are 48 meters at Manza and 44 meters at Nonakado.
Pits beneath several of the stone settings have high amounts of phosphates, indicating that they once contained burials, most likely constructed in a flexed position based on the size and shape of the pits. Recent research suggests that the circles and the central elements, which resemble a sundial, lined up during the midwinter dawn. A number of post-built structures with floors that are presumed to have been elevated above ground level have been discovered as a result of recent research in the vicinity of the Oyu stone circles. Many of these constructions have been rebuilt numerous times. Many of the burial holes, which can be seen beneath the stone settings, were used to expose the dead before burying their remains there, according to one theory about these constructions.
Four circular layouts can be found at Isedotai, about 100 kilometers from Oyu, on a terrace that faces the Shirakami mountain range, another natural World Heritage site in Japan. These monuments were found while a new route to the nearby airport was being built. The road was relocated because of their significance as the unique group of four stone circles in Japan, allowing the archaeology to be preserved in its original location.
The diameter of the stone rings ranges from 45 to 32 meters, and numerous related structures were also found. These consist of post-built structures, grave pits, storage pits, and linear ditches, one of which was 1 m wide and 1 m deep and spanned more than 100 m. At Jomon sites, where such characteristics are typically absent, such ditches are quite unusual (unlike in the succeeding Yayoi period, usually dated to 300 BC-AD 300 in northern Japan).
Some of the stones used at Isedotai were reasonably close to the site, but others had to be transported over a large distance, most likely from a river bed five kilometers away. These stones were presumably chosen in part based on their blue and white coloring. There were about 200 pieces of the clay dogu figures discovered at the location, including a sizable triangular flat figure with a projecting head.
All of the other dogus could only be put together in pieces, indicating that the missing pieces may have been removed from the location as part of the ceremonial activity. This was the only dogu that could be put back together. Numerous tripod stone artefacts, many of which bore asphalt traces, are among the other standout items from Isedotai. This naturally occurring, dark, sticky substance was frequently utilized to secure arrowheads to shafts in the Akita region.
At the Omori-Katsuyama stone circle, a site found in the 1950s in the Aomori prefecture, the relationship between stone circles and landscape elements is particularly evident. In this instance, Mount Iwaki, a remarkable extinct volcano, at whose foot the location is located, is supposed to be the alignment of the monument on the winter solstice sunset.
Omori-Katsuyama is roughly 3,000 years older than most other stone circles, making it part of the Final Jomon era and giving it a slightly later date (c.1000-300 BC). The location was prepared by leveling the terrace surface before building started, same like at Oyu and many other stone circles. 100 meters to the south-west of the stone circle, a massive pit house and a variety of stone tools used in food preparation and procurement were also found. More than 250 flat, circular stone discs of unknown use were also found in the stone circle; these are thought to have been employed in ritualistic activities.
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