Jomon Archaeology and the Representation of Japanese Origins

By Habu, Junko; Fawcett, Clare | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Jomon Archaeology and the Representation of Japanese Origins


Habu, Junko, Fawcett, Clare, Antiquity


Since 1992, on-going excavations of the Early to Middle Jomon period Sannai Maruyama site (3500-2000 BC) have uncovered the large size and complexity of this prehistoric hunter-gatherer settlement. Sannai Maruyama, furthermore, has become the first Jomon site in Japan to attract the attention of not only archaeologists, but also the media and the public. This paper argues that Sannai Maruyama's popularity is due to

1 the recent increased visibility of Jomon archaeology,

2 the dissemination of excavation results by site archaeologists,

3 the pride of local people in the site,

4 the use of archaeology by the local government to promote tourism, and

5 links drawn by Japanese intellectuals between modern Japanese and their supposed Jomon ancestors.

The Sannai Maruyama site

The Sannai Maruyama site is a large Jomon period settlement located in Aomori Prefecture, Japan. The site dates primarily from the middle of the Early Jomon period to the end of the Middle Jomon period (c. 3500-2000 BC). Archaeological excavation at Sannai Maruyama has revealed an enormous site containing over 700 pit-dwellings, approximately 20 long houses, about 100 remains of raised-floor buildings, approximately 250 adult grave pits and 800 burial jars for infants or children, several large middens and mounds containing garbage such as potsherds, stone tools, food remains and backdirt from houses (Okada 1998). In addition, over 40,000 boxes of artefacts including stone tools, potsherds, clay figurines, bone tools, clay, stone and bone ornaments, wood artefacts, rush and bark baskets and lacquered plates, bowls and combs have been uncovered, catalogued and stored for analysis (Okada 1994; Okada & Habu 1995; Okamura 1995).

When, in 1994, excavations by the Board of Education of Aomori Prefecture revealed the vast size, complexity and richness of the site, Sannai Maruyama became a focus of public attention. Finds and interpretations of the site were published in Japanese newspapers and magazines and reported on television news programmes. More than a million tourists have visited the site to see excavated artefacts and features. Sannai Maruyama, furthermore, has been the topic of many academic and semi-academic conferences.

This paper asks how and why archaeological, popular and mass media representations of Sannai Maruyama have presented this Jomon period site as a key to understanding Japanese cultural identity. Such an understanding is significant because, until the 1990s, the Japanese public and mass media did not focus on sites from the Jomon period (c. 10,000-300 BC) as sources of knowledge about the origins of the Japanese people and culture. Rather, in the popular imagination, the roots of the Japanese people, culture and nation were linked to the process of state formation associated with the Yayoi (c. 3rd century BC-AD 3rd century) and Kofun (c. 4th-7th century) periods. The past two decades have seen

1 new expressions of Japanese nationalism, including a search for Japanese identity in the prehistoric past,

2 the discovery of rich Jomon sites and

3 increased acknowledgement of the possibility of cultural diversity in Japan.

In the 1990s, these factors have resulted in the possibility of an intense and sustained focus on Jomon archaeology as a source of knowledge about Japanese cultural origins.

Archaeology in contemporary Japan

Japanese prehistory and proto-history have traditionally been divided into four periods: the Palaeolithic, Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun (Aikens & Higuchi 1982; Barnes 1993; Imamura 1996; Pearson 1992). Developing from the lithic-based Palaeolithic, the pottery-producing Jomon is characterized by the presence of large settlements and shell-middens, dependence on a hunting, gathering and fishing economy, sophisticated technologies and complex ritual. In contrast, the Yayoi period is characterized by reliance on rice agriculture, the use of metal tools and ritual objects and clear evidence of social stratification. …

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