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Book report for The Archaeology of Medieval Towns: Case Studies from Japan and Europe

The Archaeology of Medieval Towns: Case Studies from Japan and Europe. Editors: Simon Kaner, Brian Ayers, Richard Pearson and Oscar Wrenn. Archaeopress Publishing Ltd.

Published last month with the Oxford-based publisher Archaeopress, The Archaeology of Medieval Towns: Case Studies from Japan and Europe represents the culmination of a number of years research, translation, compiling and editing, looking at the medieval urban forms found both in the Japanese archipelago and in Europe.

The seeds of the book were initially sown at a conference held at the Sainsbury Institute not long after it was established, in 2004, to which many of the contributors to the book attended. As Simon Kaner and Brian Ayers, editors to the book, describe in their opening chapter, the aim was shine a light on the developments in Japanese archaeology that might not be known to audiences outside Japan, whilst also, through dialogue between scholars from Japan and Europe, to ‘explore similarities and dissimilarities in urbanism as a force for change in medieval world cultures’.

Building on the aims of this conference, the volume brings together research on medieval towns and urbanisation, with four papers by Japanese scholars and three by those from Europe. Though many of the chapters in the book are not explicitly comparative, the wide range of case studies show the diversity as well as similarity of aspects related to urban environments, including town formation, layout, use, architecture and material culture, both within Europe in Japan, and between them. Furthermore, despite the different conditions found in Europe and Japan in the medieval period, the case studies show the similarity in some of the trajectories and pressures that produced particular urban forms, and reaffirm the value in looking at these examples side by side.

Though all dealing with urbanism in one way or another, the research in the book deals with a remarkably different range of scales: from the material culture of the Aegean over the entirety of the medieval period by Joanita Vroom, to a similarly wide-lens analysis by Senda Yoshihiro examining castles throughout Japan and Germany and their role in the formation of towns; to more detailed single-site studies exemplified by Ono Masatoshi’s chapter on the short-lived town of Ichijōdani and Manfred Gläser’s chapter on the town of Lübeck. The methodological approaches are also interestingly varied, particularly when comparing with the papers from the Japanese contributors which demonstrate the broad range of contemporary archaeological work happening in Japan. One example which particularly stood out for me is the approach taken by Oka Yōichirō in the combination of archaeological data and historical texts in Kamakura, using sections from the Azuma Kagami.

As an editor of the volume I had ample opportunity to engage with the texts, to improve my initially limited knowledge of medieval archaeology and history, particularly of Japan. Working on the texts, what struck me in particular were the detailed and vivid descriptions of urban change, which imbued what I had previously seen as static objects, locations and landscapes, with dynamism and movement. I was lucky enough to meet both Senda and Oka at a conference held in Hungary last year, and discuss their research in more detail, further getting a sense of this dynamism. Oka talked animatedly about excavations at Kamakura, describing the use and change of the routes that crossed the 12th and 13th century political centre of Japan.

In the conclusion to his chapter, Ono reflects on the role of the archaeologist, not simply in outlining the facts acquired through archaeological research, but in painting vivid pictures of those that lived in towns such as Ichijōdani in the 15th and 16th centuries. As an editor of this volume, these lives were certainly keenly imagined, through, for example, the misedana shelves that were used for displaying wares in Ichijōdani as described by Ono, the bustling Kōrokan in Hakata as shown in Ōba’s chapter, or the miniature sailing ship and weapons found in Lübeck which would have been toys for children, as described by Gläser. Hopefully, with this volume these vivid descriptions of medieval urban forms will provide fertile ground for further comparison between archaeologists and non-specialists in Japan and Europe.

Oscar Wrenn
Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute

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