Prehistoric Art Unearthed from Japanese Sites Findings as Old as 200,000 Years Are on View in an Unprecedented Exhibition

By Louise Sweeney, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1992 | Go to article overview
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Prehistoric Art Unearthed from Japanese Sites Findings as Old as 200,000 Years Are on View in an Unprecedented Exhibition


Louise Sweeney, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


HOW ancient are the objects in "Ancient Japan," the exhibition now at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian?

Anywhere from 200,000 years old, from a site called Babadan A, where excavation through 33 layers of volcanic ash revealed stone tools used by hunters living then, to a sophisticated wall painting of three Japanese women in costume from the Asuka period (A.D. 600-700.) when Japan became a centralized state.

The span of time represented by this show is amazing. But nearly as amazing is the fact that many of the objects are archeological finds from the last 30 years. (During that time, new building sites in land-starved Japan have been routinely subjected to "digs" for artifacts.) Many of these exhibited objects have never been seen outside of Japan.

An age-old Japanese belief had prevented much digging until World War II, points out anthropologist Richard Pearson, who is guest curator for the show as well as the principal author of its catalog. Japanese archeologists were forbidden to contradict the "Imperial Myth of Origin," which stated that the ancestors of the Japanese people descended from heaven in 660 B.C.

After the war, archeologists shoveled through the layers of hundreds of centuries to prove that man existed as far back as 200,000 years ago in Japan, in the Paleolithic period or prehistoric Stone Age culture.

Prehistoric Japan comes to life in the 258 objects in this exhibition, which includes stone, clay, wood, bone, lacquer, and bronzes retrieved from 63 sites among Japan's string of islands. Most have been discovered since1970. More than 20,000 new sites are investigated each year.

This is the first time an exhibition from Japan has appeared at the Sackler, and the first show of prehistoric art from Japan held anywhere in the West. It is also an aesthetic treat, full of beauty from Japan's earliest history. It was organized by the Sackler in cooperation with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the government of Japan.

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