Obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass, has been a much coveted rock by mankind. In prehistoric times, hunters and gatherers on the Japanese archipelago knapped them into spears and arrow heads to improve their hunts. The black glossy stone still holds its allure, more recently best in the virtual world of Minecraft. Prized as the second strongest ‘Block’, obsidian can only be mined with a special diamond pickaxe. In Japan, those interested in the real physical obsidian can learn, discover, feel and even have a go at making their own obsidian accessories at the Obsidian Museum in Nagawa-machi town in Nagano prefecture.
The Obsidian Museum is nestled deep in the Nagano mountain range popular amongst snow sport enthusiasts. Featuring the area’s outstanding natural beauty and archaeological importance as mainland Japan’s largest obsidian producer, the Museum exhibits Paleolithic period artefacts excavated from Takayama archaeological sites together with materials from the Hoshikuso Peak where Jomon period obsidian mines are preserved and designated as a National Historic Site. Displays include a large segment of layered earth moved from the actual obisidian mine excavation site. The exhibit is impressive: nearly two meters in height, a cross-section of obsidian embedded layers of earth is on display. Other materials include field notes by and books and information on Kodama Shinobu, an instrumental figure in the research and study of Takayama obsidian mine since its discovery in 1955.
The Museum has an academic tie to Meiji University’s Obsidian Research Center and acts as the region’s center for research on buried cultural properties. The exhibits provide displays of artefacts and information on what life may have been like in the Paleolithic period and the knowledge and ingenious ways people survived their everyday in prehistoric times.
In addition to the educational exhibits is also a series of unique opportunities to discover the beauty and versatility of obsidians. From learning how to shape obsidian rocks into magatama embryo-shaped beads to making an obsidian arrowhead and testing it on a bow and arrow, the Museum offers over 20 obsidian handling programmes for a fun and educational experience.
The Museum is increasingly engaged with the Norfolk audience. Through the work of the Institute’s Centre for Archaeology and Heritage, headed by Dr Simon Kaner, the town mayor of the Obsidian Museum’s home-town of Nagawa-machi visited Norwich famous for its importance of flint in 2009. He and others from his delegation including the Obsidian Museum’s curator, Otake Sachie, were so inspired by the mutual parallel of prehistoric stone culture that they embarked on the idea of establishing a sister city link with a town in the area. Simon, through his contact with Thetford during the ‘unearthed’ exhibition held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2010, directly led new initiatives establishing cultural and educational links between Nagawa-machi and Thetford where flint mines of historic significance still play an important role in the local community.
There has been exchange visits made by both senior officials and community members since then where ideas flowed further. The most recent development is an art piece commemorating the friendship between Nagawa-machi and Thetford at the Obsidian Museum. The monument consisting of three large wall pieces representing the ‘past, present, and future’ using flint and obsidian was designed by the artist David Smith and installed and officially presented in November 2015. The official twinning ceremony took place on 14 July 2016.
A specially commissioned installation made by the artist David Smith to celebrate the twinning of Thetford, Norfolk and Nagawa-machi, Nagano
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer
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