Report on the talk “Jōmon: Stone Circles and World Heritage”

Professor Simon Kaner began the lecture and was followed by a recorded interview by Mayor Hata and Otake Sachie (Obsidian Museum Curator) in Nagawa-machi Town. It concluded with talks by Heather Sebire (English Heritage) and David Dawson (Wiltshire Museum in Devizes).  

It was ‘Jōmon July’, time to celebrate Japanese prehistory. The inscription of the seventeen Jōmon sites in northern Japan and southern Hokkaido as UNESCO World Heritage sites has finally been ratified. The sites include Sannai Maruyama and the Oyu Stone Circle. ‘Japan Heritage’, by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, was also re-introduced to the audience, in time for the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games. These achievements in heritage work are the fruits of over a decade of collaboration between friends and colleagues in Japan and the U.K. This lecture was indeed a great opportunity to both reflect on and to contemplate the meaning of cultural heritage in our modern world.

Professor Kaner gave a brief history of modern Japanese archaeology, explaining that Japan’s prehistory was first introduced to the West at the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology in Norwich in 1868. How fascinating that over one and a half centuries later, research in Japanese prehistory is again being disseminated from Norwich!

Modern archaeology was also introduced to Japan by several ‘oyatoi gaikokujin’: Westerners who were employed by the Meiji government during the modernisation process. One of them was Edward Morse, who investigated the Omori Jōmon Shell Midden. However, it is William Gowland who is regarded as the ‘Father of Japanese archaeology’. As a metallurgist at the Osaka Mint and an amateur archaeologist, Gowland excavated over 400 ‘kofun’ burial mounds. His photographs and meticulous records are stored at the British Museum. Gowland also used his expertise to carry out archaeological work at Stonehenge.

Tsuboi Shōgorō, the first Japanese anthropologist to study in Great Britain’, proposed a new interpretation of dogū figurines from northern Japan after observing a Siberian tribe’s snow goggles at the British Museum. A new exchange with the West resulted in new ideas.

Prof. Simon Kaner with the Thetford and Nagawa-machi Mayors 2012. Photo: Nagawa Town Board of Education
Obsidian Festival in Nagawa-machi 2013. Photo: Nagawa Town Board of Education

This month’s lecture was also an occasion to celebrate the opening of the Hoshikusokan obsidian on-site mine museum. Since Nagawa-machi and the Sainsbury Institute signed an agreement in 2012 for academic collaboration, this link has developed to become the ‘World’s first archaeological twinning’, between Hoshikuso obsidian mines and Grimes Graves flint mines. Otake Sachie, inspired by Grimes Graves, designed the new museum in Nagawa with her colleagues. This museum allows visitors to see preserved layers of the obsidian mines and to reflect on the passage of time by ‘sharing the space with Jōmon people who worked thousands years ago’. Mayor Hata commented that, today, Nagawa people are not only proud of their heritage but are trying to pass this important heritage on to future generations. Another major achievement is the youth exchange programmes between Nagawa and the Ancient House Museum in Thetford. Nagawa’s new town hall also displays a symbolic monument titled ‘Universal Truth’. This was designed by David Smith, Otake-san and colleagues who made it with Norfolk flint and Nagawa obsidian.

Hoshikusokan Opening Ceremony July 2021. Photo: Nagawa Town Board of Education
Hoshikusokan Museum Viewing July 2021. Photo: Nagawa Town Board of Education

There were two distinguished guest speakers at this lecture, Heather Sebire (English Heritage) and David Dawson (Wiltshire Museum in Devizes). Sebire, who first met Prof Kaner at the World Archaeology Congress in Kyoto in 2016, spoke about their joint research on Stonehenge and Japanese stone circles, such as Oyu and Isedotai. We also heard about Neolithic people’s concept of life and death, as well as astronomy. The ‘Stonehenge and Jōmon Japan’ exhibition is anticipated to be held in autumn 2022, after a long postponement due to the pandemic. The project provides important comparators for stone circles in other parts of the world, notably between the UK and Japan.

We also heard from Dawson, who has been collaborating with the Sainsbury Institute. Students from Japan, UK and Europe together visited various sites and museums including the Wiltshire Museum during the University of Tokyo and the Sainsbury Institute’s joint Winter Programmes. During his reciprocal visit to the sites and museums in Japan, Dawson said that he felt the Japanese people’s pride and enthusiasm for their heritage. It is hoped that pots from Wiltshire will be loaned to the Niigata Prefectural Museum, to be displayed along with Jōmon ‘flame pots’.  

Professor Kaner told us that he is very pleased that Japanese people have become more interested in prehistory in recent years. Much can be learnt in Professor Kobayashi Tatsuo’s ‘Jomon Reflections’, which has become freely available online from Oxbow Books.

Professor Kaner’s talk was concluded in memory of Dr Don Henson, who sadly passed away this year. He made a huge contribution to education in archaeology, and the twinning of Grimes Graves and Obsidian mines in Nagawa-machi.

Congratulations to Professor Kaner and colleagues on their achievement in helping to make Jōmon heritage finally achieve World recognition. We can look forward to further developments in their archaeology and heritage work.

Kobayashi Tatsuo, Jomon Reflections, Oxbow Books (2004).

Natsue Hayward
MA student in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies

e-Bulletin contents: