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Circles of Stone: A Report

© English Heritage

Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan opened at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre on 30th September. The exhibition presents materials from stone circles in the Japanese archipelago dating to the later part of the Jomon period, overlapping in age with Stonehenge, including sites that were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2021. It asks what life in Japan was like at the time of Stonehenge, one of the most iconic sites of prehistory anywhere, and explores some intriguing connections in the history of study of British and Japanese prehistory.

The exhibition represents an unprecedented partnership between the Sainsbury Institute and English Heritage, the charitable organisation charged with looking after over 400 historic sites across England on behalf of the government. The idea for the exhibition developed from discussions at the 8th World Archaeological Congress in Kyoto in 2016, exemplifying the creativity that can arise from attending these international meetings. A study visit to Japan by the curatorial team from English Heritage in autumn 2019 provided the opportunity to visit Jomon sites, including the stone circles at Oyu and Isedotai in Akita prefecture, Sannai Maruyama in Aomori, and Umataka close to the Shinano River in Niigata prefecture, where the Flame pots, contemporaries of Stonehenge, were first discovered in the 1930s.

Planning shifted online in spring 2020. When the striking designs by Northover and Brown were installed and the packing cases arrived along with our key Japanese curator Miyao Toru from the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, the two years of pandemic-induced postponements melted away as the objects which had been selected by our English Heritage colleagues emerged one by one from their exquisite wrappings.

I spent much of the two weeks prior to the opening at Stonehenge watching the exhibition take shape, each exhibit being carefully checked, admired, photographed and positioned in the cases, resting on custom-made stands hand-crafted in the gallery. I was also shuttling back and forth to Norwich where Dr Andy Hutcheson of our Centre for Archaeology and Heritage was completing the re-excavation of the Arminghall Neolithic Henge, just south of Norwich, another unprecedented project for the Institute.  Speaking to the specialists from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, our amazing troupe of volunteer diggers, and the hundreds of visitors who came to our open days, I was forcefully reminded of the performative impact of archaeological excavation, and reflected on how excavation and exhibition provide two such different ways of experiencing prehistory.

Volunteers at Stonehenge craft their own Jomon-inspired flame pots.

Another way of encountering the deep past is to engage in having a go with early technology. Graham Taylor and his daughter Sarah are potters who specialise in reproducing ancient ceramics. They enthusiastically took up the challenge of making a replica Jomon Flame pot. We had a fascinating day at the British Museum, where colleagues took the five Flame pots currently on long-term loan from Nagaoka and Tsunan in Niigata out of the display cases so that Graham and Sarah could have a proper close up look. Watching them in turn inspire the dedicated volunteers at Stonehenge make not only their own Flame pots but also dogu figures further reinforced the feeling that the Jomon had arrived on Salisbury Plain. Another wonderful moment was when the team got first sight of the replica obsidian arrowheads, knives and scrapers made by our friends at the Nagawa-machi Obsidian Museum in Nagano, who were so delighted at the thought of their being used to bring the Jomon to life by the volunteers in the reconstructed Neolithic houses at Stonehenge.

The evening before the exhibition opened to the public, His Excellency Mr Hayashi Hajime, the Japanese Ambassador, paid a visit to Stonehenge with his wife to enjoy a private tour and formally open the exhibition, performing the ‘baraki-kagami’ or ‘barrel opening’ ceremony with English Heritage Chief Executive Kate Mavor. Kimono-clad friends wandered among the stones and we were offered sake and sushi while enjoying koto music. The weather was perfect, the raking sunlight illuminating the trilithons and bluestones, so that we could easily make out the often hard-to-see daggers pecked into the surface of the great sarsen stones. Once the sun set, a crescent moon rose low in the western sky filled with stars over Salisbury Plain – a scene that would perhaps have been appreciated by the builders both of Stonehenge and the Jomon stone circles.

His Excellency Mr Hayashi Hajime with Madame Hayashi, Kate Mavor (Chief Executive of English Heritage), Miyao Toru (Niigata Prefectural Museum of History), Heather Sebire (English Heritage) and the author at the exhibition opening.

Over the coming year we will be exploring many dimensions of the archaeology of stone circles through our Online Jomon Matsuri and other media. Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan is at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre until late summer 2023. The exhibition is a partnership between the Sainsbury Institute and English Heritage, generously sponsored by the Ishibashi Foundation. Lenders include Kazuno City and Kitaakita City in Akita Prefecture, Aomori City and Prefecture, and Nagaoka City in Niigata Prefecture, the British Museum, Salisbury Museum and the Society of Antiquaries of London. We are grateful to the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, the Jomon Sites of Northern Japan World Heritage, the International Jomon Culture Conference, and the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation which supported the visit to Japan by English Heritage Curators in 2019. I take this opportunity to thank all the archaeologists, artists, designers, curators and everyone involved in the exhibition and associated activities, at Stonehenge, English Heritage, in Japan and elsewhere.

A board at the exhibition entrance shows letters of greeting from the mayors of the municipalities which lent exhibits.

The exhibition Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan is open at the Stonehenge visitor centre until August 2023 and is free to Stonehenge ticket holders, English Heritage and National Trust England members and local residents, as well as education groups.