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Report on the talk ‘Circles of Stone: Bringing the Jomon to Stonehenge’

Two icons of neolithic Britian and Japan: A ‘flame pot’ miniature brought to Stonehenge. Photo credit: John Garner (author).

Returning with fresh insights after a year of study leave, the Sainsbury Institute’s Director, Professor Simon Kaner, presented ‘Circles of Stone: Bringing the Jomon to Stonehenge’ as July’s edition of the Third Thursday Lecture series. Prof. Kaner unwrapped the story of his latest major project, the year-long exhibition ‘Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan’, which highlighted the curious similarities and differences between British stone circles and their counterparts in Japan. The lecture moved from the exhibition’s practical delivery to delving into the history of the sites themselves as monuments of Neolithic societies, and introducing their role in scholarly exchange between British and Japanese archaeologists from the 19th to 21st centuries.

The idea to bring Jomon objects to Stonehenge was first conceived in 2016, and the exhibition was earmarked to open in 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, objects were finally shipped to the UK to be displayed for a year-long run, opening from 30th September  2022 to 3rd September 2023. It was an unprecedented collaboration between British and Japanese organisations; including English Heritage, the Sainsbury Institute, the Niigata Prefectural History Museum and the Jomon Japan consortium of World Heritage Jomon sites in northern Tohoku and southern Hokkaido. The Ishibashi Foundation provided generous sponsoring to allow such a partnership to happen.

The collaborative approach reflects the history of archaeological discourse between Britain and Japan. Prof. Kaner opened with Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-1897), who published one of the earliest reports on the ‘Japanese stone-age’ as part of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology, hosted in Norwich in 1868. Introducing the notable figures of Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925), Tsuboi Shogoro (1863-1913) and Neil Gordon Munro (1863-1942), Prof. Kaner crafted a timeline of an intertwined history of archaeological discourse. The exhibition at Stonehenge featured the drawings and papers of the engineer and hobbyist archaeologist William Gowland (1842-1922), who prominently recorded many archaeological sites in Japan, and was later commissioned to assess and prevent the deterioration of Stonehenge. Gowland’s reports used illustrations from the construction of Edo Castle to suggest how Stonehenge could have been erected using man-power alone. To compare, two woodblock prints depicting Stonehenge at night and day by Urushibara Yoshijiro (1888-1953), show the iconic British site interpreted through a Japanese fashion.

In 1902, Munro investigated the Oshoro stone circle in Hokkaido, observing that the circular configuration of thousands of clustered stones were aligned to the cardinal points, leading Prof. Kaner to compare the size and scale of stones used in Britain and Japan. British sites like Stonehenge and Avebury were constructed using enormous sarsens or bluestones from non-local deposits, whilst in Japan, they are formed using thousands of smaller stones, typically sourced from a nearby riverbed. Though the size and quantity of stones are different, both cases would have posed immense challenges to their prehistoric creators.

The configuration of stones is equally important for understanding Jomon worldview. In Akita prefecture, features at the Isedotai circles are formed specifically of cross-hatched green stones, while Prof. Kaner theorised that the two circles at Oyu were never actually finished, but rather a place of ongoing change and reconfiguration, much like the many changes of Stonehenge’s alignments. The ‘sundial’ features of Oyu also align to the summer and winter solstice, comparable to the positioning of the sarsens at Stonehenge. The Komakino site in Aomori prefecture features complicated layers of rings and lines, while the circle at Aomori aligns with the rising volcanic peak of Mount Iwaki. The common thread between almost all sites is the presence of burials, objects of funerary rites and astronomical positioning. As Prof. Kaner believes, Jomon people evidently questioned, designed and creatively manipulated the landscapes around them according to their own beliefs.

‘Sundial’ features seen off-centre in the Nonakado circle at Oyu, Akita Prefecture, Japan. Photo credit: John Garner (author)

Around seventy objects to be displayed were brought from sites across central and northern Japan, giving us clues about Jomon behaviour and creative processes. The Jomon period itself stretched from around 16,500 to 300 BCE, the Japanese paleoenvironment supporting a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Jomon people produced a wealth of material culture in the form of clay pottery, figurines, and stone tools, among other decorative objects, which are often lesser found in British Neolithic sites. Visitors can see an iconic ‘flame pot’ from Niigata Prefecture, showing off its mysterious swirling shapes and patterns, while clay dogu figurines from Isedotai site sport triangular slab forms, possibly representations of earth goddesses. A miniature clay bear from Isedotai perhaps shows a veneration for the bears, which still inhabit the forests around the site today. A clay plaque with patterned dots from Oyu implies a Jomon numerical system. Jomon people were diverse in their representation of their world, and the display and explanation of such objects brought rich new insights for visitors to Stonehenge and listeners to Prof. Kaner’s lecture.

Replica Jomon flame pot on display at the Circles of Stone exhibition (now closed). Photo credit: English Heritage.

Although the Neolithic cultures of Britain and Japan developed independently of each other, Prof. Kaner aimed to show that the construction of monuments like stone circles allows us to understand a common prehistoric human behaviour and system of beliefs across the Eurasian continent. Recent headlines of vandalism at the Carnac megalithic site in France, the crowds that flock to Stonehenge on the solstices, or the highway built directly beneath the Washinoki circle in Hokkaido, are proof that ancient sites remain relevant yet vulnerable in the modern age. Their protection, and even celebration, is necessary to connect with the past inhabitants of our islands, and Prof. Kaner’s outstanding determination to share this discourse across both Britain and Japan through the exhibition, intercultural programmes, publications and lectures is so important to ensure that this continues.

Please contact the Sainsbury Institute office team on sisjac@sainsbury-institue.org for all requests relating to the recording of the lecture.

John Garner is an undergraduate student at UEA studying Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History. He has recently undertaken a year’s exchange at the International Christian University in Tokyo, training in Jomon archaeology and visiting the sites mentioned in this report.