On display at Avebury, Wiltshire from May 2023.
The prehistoric Jomon inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago constructed stone monuments which, although not megalithic, are comparable in area and function to the great stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge. They were built and used over many years spanning multiple generations. They were used to mark time and the passing of the seasons. They were oriented on skyscapes and features in the landscapes. They are associated with burials of ancestors.
There are more than 50 stone circles and other comparable features known in Japan. This short film introduces some of these sites. One of the first to be fully investigated was at Oyu in Akita prefecture, where two circular arrangements of stone features, Manza and Nonakado, were excavated and displayed for the public. At the centre of each stone circle is a feature known as the ‘sundial’ which form an alignment through the site with the summer and winter solstices. There are also other features, such as this stone feature, many of which are associated with burials. Just like the stone circles at Avebury, these sites were used over many generations in prehistory, and were the focus of repeated ceremonial activities through which Jomon people marked the passing of time and celebrated their ancestral histories.
For further information about Jomon archaeology, download Tatsuo Kobayashi’s Jomon Reflections from the Oxbow Books website for free. For more information, you can read this article from Current World Archaeology which discusses the Japanese stone circles in more detail, the latest issue of the Jomon Journal which provides more information, and you can also visit the website for the Jomon Sites of Northern Japan World Heritage.
Marking the passing of time and the changing seasons was important in prehistoric Japan as it is today, where solstices and equinoxes continue to be celebrated as national holidays. In prehistory, people who lived in Japan during the later Jomon period, from around 5000 to 3000 years ago, built stone monuments, comparable in function to stone circles, such as Avebury.
17 prehistoric Jomon sites, including some of the stone circles introduced here, were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2021, joining a global community of sites regarded as being of outstanding universal value for the history of humanity, joining Avebury, inscribed along with Stonehenge in 1986.
The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures is working with partners in Japan and elsewhere to promote awareness of Japanese archaeology.
The landscape around Avebury includes long barrows where ancestors of the Neolithic people were buried. Many of the stone settings in the Jomon stone circles appear to mark burials, although the bones have long vanished in the acidic Japanese soils.
The Jomon stone circles were constructed over extended periods, often many centuries, by people who repeatedly returned to these locations to venerate their ancestors. They took part in rituals involving ceramic dogu figurines and other special artefacts.
Orientations in the cosmic landscape
Landscapes and skyscapes had great significance for prehistoric people in Japan just as in Britain. Many Jomon stone monuments were oriented towards particular features in the landscape, notably mountain peaks. Some were aligned with the summer and winter equinoxes and movements of the heavenly bodies.
Neil Gordon Munro noted the orientation of the Oshoro stone circle in Hokkaido in the first synthesis of Japanese archaeology, Prehistoric Japan (1908). The Oshoro stone circles continued to be of importance to later indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido, the Ainu people, long after the end of the Jomon period.
Image: Oyu stone circles, Kazuno city, Akita prefecture. Image by permission.