Building for the Sovereign and the Buddha: Artisans and Labourers in Eighth-Century Japan

Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 16 May, 2024
6:00pm BST - 7:00pm BST

Online lecture via Zoom.
50 min lecture followed by Q&A.
Free and open to all, booking essential.
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If you have limited access to the internet but would still like to view the lecture, please email or call us on +44 (0) 1603 597507 to book to attend our livestream from 64 The Close. 


Dr Ellen Van Goethem (Kyushu University)

About the Talk

A handful of eighth-century buildings still dot the Japanese landscape. They are typically found in Buddhist temples in the Kansai area and have attracted considerable scholarly and non-specialist attention. Notwithstanding the wealth of available sources, however, the workforce behind the construction of these monumental structures has been studied far less. This talk will focus on the lives and activities of the workers and will show that, just like their modern-day counterparts, at least some of the eighth-century artisans and labourers were well known and in high demand. Their knowledge and craftsmanship were essential to the timely completion of construction projects, and some even accumulated considerable wealth.

About the Speaker

Ellen Van Goethem is associate professor of Japanese History and History of Ideas at Kyushu University. She specializes in the history and archaeology of the long 8th century. Her primary focus is on the layout of capital cities and inscribed wooden tablets. She has also published on site divination (fengshui) in premodern East Asia and on the influence of these ideas on contemporary Japanese architecture. Currently, she works on the modern-day recreation of ancient history through the lens of Heian Shrine and its Festival of the Ages, as well as on 8th-century construction workers.


Image: Yakushiji’s East Pagoda.

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The Third Thursday Lecture series is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Yakult UK.