The Jōmon Megalithic Tradition in Japan

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “The Jōmon Megalithic Tradition in Japan: Origins, Features, and Distribution“, by A.V. Tabarev et al. (2017).

NovoScriptorium: Please see here for the Jōmon period and the Jōmon people.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that there were at least three traditions of monumental structures in ancient times on the territory of the Japanese Archipelago. Two of them are later; one of these is associated with the dolmens of the Korean Peninsula and the distribution of the Yayoi culture on the greater part of the archipelago (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD), and the second is associated with the “period of burial mounds” (“Kofunjidai”, 3rd–6th centuries AD). The third, more ancient and mysterious tradition, is represented by sites of the Jōmon period (13,800–2300 BP). According to the variety of forms, monumentality, amount of materials used, and number of builders, as well as time and energy spent on the construction works, this tradition is by no means inferior to the later traditions on the Japanese archipelago. Moreover, from a global perspective, the Jōmon tradition is yet another confirmation of the complexity and sophistication of ritual practices in the societies of hunters, gatherers, and fishermen who were not associated with a producing economy. The followers of those ritual practices actively experimented with materials (stone, soil, wood, or shells) for creating monumental structures, enhanced the visual effect by incorporating their complexes into the landscape, and carried out regular “maintenance” of ritual objects intended for long-term use. The megaliths (stone structures) are only one type of monumental structure, but they are the best preserved and most informative in archaeological terms.”

“There is no single classification of the monumental structures of the Jōmon period. An overview can be carried out according to various principles: time (from the earliest to the latest), territories (Kyushu, Honshu, Hokkaido), type (circles, alignments, clusters, pilings, etc.), size, presence or absence of accompanying burials, location outside settlements or on their territory, main building material (stone, wood, earth, or shells), etc. The earliest versions of monumental structures are those in the form of stones placed in a row. For example, such clusters of stones have been found at the sites of the Early Jōmon period (about 8000 BP) of Setaura (Kumamoto Prefecture, southern Kyushu) and Yamanokami (Nagano Prefecture, Chūbu region) (…)

Numerous stone tools, represented mainly by polished points with concave bases, have been found at both sites. In addition to stone clusters, the complexes include semidugouts, hearth structures, and earth pits (Daikuhara Yutaka, 2013).

The Early Jōmon sites (6500 BP) include the Akyū site (Hara village, Suwa District, Nagano Prefecture) covering an area of 55,000 m2. According to Japanese archaeologists, the earliest parts of the site are “stone circles” of large and small stones (over 100,000) arranged in two rows (…)

The remains of the settlement go back to the beginning–middle of the Early Jōmon period (Akyū iseki…, 1978: 26–30).

The earliest structures belonging to the variant with “vertically erected wooden posts” appear at the Akyūjiri site (the city of Chino, Nagano Prefecture), which is dated to the first half of the Early Jōmon period (6500 BP) (…)

The remains of the dwellings and the earth pits belong to the range from the second half of the Early Jōmon to the beginning of the Middle Jōmon period (Akyūjiri iseki…, 1993: 55–103).

The construction of “stone circles” (one of the most spectacular types of monumental structures) began at least from the end of the Middle Jōmon period (4100–4000 BP), reached the largest scale in the first half of the Late Jōmon period (4000–3700 BP), and ended in the Final Jōmon period (3000–2300 BP). Currently, over 100 complexes are known. They have been discovered on the island of Hokkaido and in the northeast of the island of Honshu, mainly in the Aomori, Iwate, and Akita Prefectures. There is also some evidence of fi nding “stone circles” in Central Japan (Kanto and Chūbu regions). On the southern islands of the archipelago (Kyushu and Ryukyu), during the Late–Final Jōmon period (4500–2800 BP), such structures are absent; burials with various types of stonework (stone piles, various types of dolmens) are typical of this area (Nakamura Kenji, 2007).

Small (not more than 3–5 m) scattered groups of stones piled together have been observed at many sites of the island of Hokkaido and in the Tohoku region from the late Middle to the first half of the Late Jōmon period (about 4100–3700 BP). Stone clusters of rounded shape in the form of an arc, which resemble mountains, or in the form of a “strained bow” have been found (…)

(Above: Akyu Ruins)

A large number of complexes with early “stone circles” are known on the territory of the Gunma Prefecture: Nomura site (the city of Annaka), Hisamori site (the town of Nakanojō), Tazuno Nakahara site (the city of Tomioka), Higashihara Teranishi site (the city of Fujioka), as well as Achiya Daira site (the town of Asahi) and Dojitte site (the town of Tsunan) in the Niigata Prefecture (…)

at the Nomura site, one may observe the sunset over Mount Myōgi during the winter solstice, and at the Tazuno Nakahara site (the city of Tomioka, southern part of the Gunma Prefecture) over Mount Asama during the summer solstice. Many scholars have also noted that specific features of the stone arrangement might have had a certain visual effect. Thus, if you look at the rectangular structure at the Nomura site from a hill, its shape looks absolutely round (Daikuhara Yutaka, 2005, 2013: 42; Hatsuyama Takayuki, 2005).

Noteworthy are also the monumental complexes located inside large settlements, for example, the Goshono site in the Iwate Prefecture on the island of Honshu. This site is dated to 4500–4000 BP and belongs to the middle and the second half of the Middle Jōmon period (…)

“Stone circles” of the Late Jōmon period differ from the structures of the early stage by their scale and a clearly articulated oval or rectangular shape measuring 30 to 50 m. Beginning in the first half of the Late Jōmon period, arc-shaped clusters started to appear in the Kanto and Chūbu regions. Thus, in the Gunma Prefecture, such objects have been found at the Tazuno Nakahara site (the city of Tomioka), Yokokabe Nakamura site (the town of Naganohara), and Karasawa site (the city of Shibukawa). In some cases, under the arc-shaped clusters, flat graves were located.

(Above: Oyu Stone Circles – Sundial)

The Ōyu complex of the Late Jōmon period, located in the Akita Prefecture on the island of Honshu, stands out from all sites with “stone circles” and alignments. The complex consists of two separate structures, the Manza (lit. ‘ten thousand places’) and Nonakado (‘temple in the middle of the field’), each consisting of two stone circles. The former structure is made of over 105 stones; the diameter of the outer circle is 52 m; the diameter of the inner circle is 16 m. The Nonakado structure amounts to over 55 stones; the diameter of the outer circle is 44 m; the diameter of the inner circle is 14 m. In the northwestern parts of both structures, small complexes are located, called “the sundials”: elongated large stones are radially placed around a vertical stone pillar, and the whole structure is enclosed in a ring of stones. According to S. Kawaguchi (1956), the Ōyu complex was based on the beliefs of the Jōmon population concerning the motion of the celestial bodies. If we draw a straight line between the “sundials” of Manza and Nonakado, it will coincide with the line of the sunset during the summer solstice.

(Above: Nonakado Stone Remains)

An even more sophisticated complex covering about 9700 m2 and going back to the Late Jōmon period, was investigated at the Komakino site (Aomori Prefecture) (Endo Masao, Kodama Daisei, 2005). It consists of three “stone circles”: central (2.5 m), inner (29 m), and outer (35 m). The central circle is composed of large blocks with a total weight reaching 500 kg, and several dozens of small blocks. The inner and outer circles are laid out in two layers in a special order according to the pattern, “one large stone set vertically and from three to six set horizontally”, which has received the name of the “Komakino style”. It is notable that a similar pattern in the simplified form “1 + 2” was also used for creating small circles. The placement of stones was preceded by a large-scale digging of soil (over 300 m3) and its layered redistribution (…)

In the Aomori Prefecture, several small stone structures dating to the Late Jōmon period have been found, including the Ōishidai site and complexes in the city of Hachinohe and the town of Sannohe (Jōmon no sutōn sākuru, 2012: 53–65).

(Above: Komakino)

In the Final Jōmon period, a noticeable decline in construction of monumental structures is observed. The most impressive complexes of that time include the Ōmori-Katsuyama site (Aomori Prefecture) and Tateishi site (Iwate Prefecture) (…)

About 60 sites with “stone circles” and large clusters of stones going back to the Late–Final Jōmon period are known from the territory of the island of Hokkaido. Complexes of the Late Jōmon period are represented by circles and round and square stone clusters, which range in size from 5 to 40 m. These include the sites of Washinoki, Nishizakiyama, Yunosato V, and Kamui Kotan. Burial grounds with “stone circles” appear at two large sites of Goten’yama and Shuen.”

“Stone was not the only building material for monumental structures. An example of a complex with a thick earthen mound is the Terano Higashi site, located in the southeastern part of the city of Oyama (the southern part of the Tochigi Prefecture), on the border with the city of Yūki (Ibaraki Prefecture). Archaeological objects from the Paleolithic to the Heian period were found on an area of 26 hectares on the right bank of the Togawa River, on the edge of a terrace rising 43 m above the sea level. The remains of a large settlement, represented by dwellings (127 dwelling pits), earth pits (over 900), and burial urns (95 jars) belong to the Middle Jōmon period (4600–4000 BP). A large earthen mound was erected in the center of the site in the range from the first half of the Late Jōmon period (3800 BP) to the first half of the Final Jōmon period (2800 BP) (…)

The Kasori site in the Chiba Prefecture is the most vivid example of a Jōmon site where shell middens act as monumental structures. The largest shell midden in the world is located there, covering an area of over 13.4 hectares and reaching a height from 4 to 18 m. The midden consists of two parts: the northern ring (up to 130 m in diameter) dating to the Middle Jōmon period, and the southern half-ring (over 170 m in diameter), which was made in the Late Jōmon period.

Several large shell middens of ring or horseshoe shape, belonging to the Middle–Late Jōmon period, such as Arayashiki (diameter 150 m, height up to 19 m), Horinouchi (about 200 m in diameter), and Takanekido (diameter of over 100 m, height up to 15 m), etc., have been discovered in the same area (the Tokyo Bay) (…)

In the large dwelling complex of Sannai Maruyama (5050–3900 BP), which includes over 700 dwellings, a necropolis, earthen mounds, and several shell piles, a unique wooden structure (supposedly, an astronomical complex) has been found. This is a pile-supported structure on six supporting posts up to 1 m in diameter, with a height of approximately 20 m, and with three layers of platforms (Habu, 2004: 110–118; Ivanova, 2014).”

Kasori Shell Mounds

“the earliest monumental structures (“stone rings”, alignments) on the Japanese Archipelago appeared already in the Initial and Early Jōmon period (8000–6500 BP). The origins of this tradition are rooted in even greater antiquity, the Late Paleolithic. The most important element in the majority of megalithic complexes are vertically placed stones or columns. Owing to the poor preservation of organic materials in acidic soils, it is difficult to trace wooden structures, but sufficiently large numbers of stone finds have been discovered. The earliest of them are the fragments of symbolic figurines sculpted from elongated pebbles from the sites of Iwate, Masugata, and Musashi dating from 20,000 to 16,000 BP. Some Japanese scholars believe that they can be even earlier, going back to 24,000–20,000 BP (Harunari, 1996).

Large natural outcrops of columnar dacites are known on the island of Honshu (Gunma, Saitama, Nagano, and Niigata Prefectures), as well as on the island of Hokkaido. It is as if nature offered humans ready-made elements for ritual complexes and structures. For the first time, the use of fragments of dacite columnar joints with a hexagonal cross-section as vertical symbols was observed at the sites of the Mikoshiba culture (13,500–11,500 BP), transitional from the Paleolithic to the Jōmon period, seen in the Mikoshiba A and Karasawa B sites (Mikoshiba Site…, 2008: 22– 25; Tabarev, 2011). The tradition of their use continued into the Jōmon period; dacite hexahedrons of various lengths (from 5–10 to 100 cm and more) have been found in dwelling complexes, graves, and in small clusters of stones, which constituted circles and alignments (Jōmonjin no ishigami…, 2010: 5–10; Sasaki Akira, 1989) (…)

the Jōmon megalithic tradition is an outstanding landmark of an entire era in the ancient history of the Japanese Archipelago. These spectacular monuments reflect sophisticated ritual practices of hunters, gatherers, and fishers, evolving over 10,000 years. At the same time, this phenomenon is one of the elements in a sophisticated mosaic of megalithic traditions which existed in the ancient cultures of the continental, coastal, and island parts of East and Southeast Asia.”

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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