Research projects

Kofun period

From the 3rd to the 7th centuries AD, important people in Japan were buried in mounded tombs, accompanied by elaborate ‘grave goods’. Many of these tombs, or ‘kofun’ remain as striking monuments in the Japanese landscape, and include some of the largest funerary structures of the ancient world. A proportion of these tombs, designated as the final resting places of Imperial ancestors, are not accessible for any archaeological research. And some are now being put forward for inscription as a World Heritage Site. The Sainsbury Institute, in partnership with the British Museum, is developing a major new research project about the kofun period. The first two years of this project were documented by NHK for a special programme about the Gowland collection at the British Museum, aired in July 2012. The project will develop to set the kofun in Japan in their East Asian context, and their place in the archaeology of late antiquity in Eurasia. We congratulate our colleagues involved in the inscription of the Mozu-Furuichi kofun group as UNESCO World Heritage in 2019

See the recent publication in our Archaeopress Comparative and Contextual Perspectives series Burial Mounds in Europe and Japan by Thomas Knopf, Werner Steinhaus and Shin’ya Fukunaga.

The mounded tombs or kofun of the Japanese archipelago include some of the largest burial monuments of the ancient world. In conjunction with the Japan Section in the Department of Asia at the British Museum we are working with a team of Japanese specialists led by Professor Ichinose Kazuo (Kyoto Tachibana University) and Professor Hishida Tetsuo (Kyoto Prefectural University) on the collection of Kofun period artefacts and archive acquired by William Gowland, one of the Meiji period foreign specialists, who visited, investigated and recorded over 400 kofun while living in Japan between 1872 and 1888.

We are also working with Dr Thomas Knopf (Tubingen University) and have supported two research conferences on Kofun archaeology and we are collaborating with Professor Fukunaga Shin’ya (Osaka University) on a major comparative project about large burial mounds around the world.

The Centre also hosted Luke Edgington-Brown, a PhD student funded through a Collaborative Doctoral Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, researching the Gowland Collection. Luke completed his PhD in 2018 and has subsequently had postdoctoral fellowships at Kyoto Prefecural University and the Kyoto Institute, Library and Archive.