Dragon bones and sacred pillars: some archaeological observations on traditional Japanese religion

Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 18 July, 2019
6:00pm BST

Blake Studio, Norwich School, NR1 4DD


Professor Simon Kaner (Sainsbury Institute & University of East Anglia)

About the Talk

This lecture will consider the relationship between myth and archaeology in Japan through two case studies. The ombashira festival takes place every six years in the area around Lake Suwa in Nagano prefecture. It involves the cutting down of huge cedar trees which are then ridden down the steep mountain slopes, eventually being set up in the sacred precincts of the Suwa Grand Shrine. It is one of the most exciting and more perilous of the Japanese festivals. Aspects of the festival are used in the interpretation of prehistoric wooden circles from the Jomon period. We will consider the rationale behind these analogies. The second example is from the Izumo region, a land full of myths and legends that feature large in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient matters). A visit to the Ancient Izumo Museum indicates that myth and archaeological interpretation are closely intertwined. Once again we will give some careful consideration to the relationship between myth and sacred heritage with a few comparative examples from other parts of the world. We will end with some thoughts on the perceived need for contemporary beliefs to be legitimated through the use of history and archaeology, and a brief visit to the mounded tomb at Miyajigadake in Fukuoka prefecture.

About the Speaker

Professor Simon Kaner is Director of the Centre for Japanese Studies at the University of East Anglia and Executive Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, where he is also Head of the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage. He is an archaeologist specialising in the prehistory of Japan. His recent publications include ‘An Illustrated Companion to Japanese Archaeology’ (edited, with Werner Steinhaus) (Oxford, Archaeopress, 2016) and he is currently editing the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Korea and Japan. He is Co-Editor of the Japanese Journal of Archaeology, Series Editor for the Archaeopress series Comparative Perspectives on Japanese Archaeology and Series Co-Editor for the Springer series The Science of the History of Humanity in Asia and the Pacific. He is currently directing a project on Global Perspectives on British Archaeology ( and is developing new exhibitions for 2020 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia comparing the appearance of Buddhism in Japan and the adoption of Christianity in northwestern Europe – the arrival of world religions at the extremities of the Silk Roads, and for the Stonehenge World Heritage Visitor Centre on Stonehenge and Japan.

This event is part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020

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