Genealogy in the Ground: Observations of Jar Burials of the Yayoi Period, Northern Kyushu, Japan

Article excerpt


The Yayoi period of Japan witnessed the adoption of rice paddy field agriculture (e.g. Immamura 1996: 128-37; Mizoguchi 2002:116-34). The sophisticated socio-technological complex related to rice cultivation is most likely to have been introduced from the southern coastal region of the Korean peninsula, and this led to the rapid development of social complexity and stratification. Whether the nature of social complexity of the Middle Yayoi period can be best equated to the chiefdom or the Big Man tribal society (cf. Johnson & Earle 1987) is the subject of debate (cf. Mizoguchi 2002: 169-83). However, it is widely accepted that by the late Middle Yayoi period, a roughly 100-year period around AD 1, society became differentiated into two strata: the elite, comprising chiefs and their kin; and the commoners (e.g. Takakura 1973; Kondo 1983).

The study of the mortuary practices of the Yayoi period has focused on the emergence and maturation of such a social hierarchy. The two principal objectives of the study have been the recognition of burial groups that are thought to have been the mortuary allotments of small corporate segments such as sub-lineages/households in individual cemetery sites and the examination of whether any evidence exists for hierarchical differences between those burial groups in terms of the amount of grave goods deposited with the deceased and the amount of labour mobilised in the construction of graves. The cemeteries have been categorised into types (cf. Takakura 1973) that are assumed to have reflected the stages of the process of social stratification. However, we can also distinguish two different principles of spatial structuring which reflect different attitudes to the passage of time. It is the consciousness of burial sequences and its connection with social and economic success that provide the subject of this paper.

Two types of spatial structure

Looking at the general plans of late Middle Yayoi period cemeteries from the northern Kyushu region, one's first impression is that the spatial configuration of burials and related features appears rather chaotic. However, we may examine their sequential development in detail utilising the well-established typo-chronology of the burial jars which is anchored by imported bronze mirrors with known production dates from early Han dynastic period, China (cf. Hashiguchi 1979; Figure 1). The exercise reveals two distinct patterns, which we can exemplify by examining cemetery sites at Mondentsujibatake site and Uraedani.


The cemetery at Monden-tsujibatake is located on a low-lying hill on the bottom of a floodplain (Fukuoka Prefectural Board of Education 1978). Here, 27 jar burials were excavated (Figure 2), of which 18 (9 adult and 9 infant) dated to the late Middle Yayoi period (around AD 1). At the centre of the cemetery were three jar burials, located side by side with their grave pits partially overlapping one another. Jar burial 23 was overlapped at a corner of the grave pit by jar burial 24, a corner of whose grave pit was destroyed when jar burial 21 was constructed. This suggests that the group comprising those three burials represented a sequence of three episodes in the early phase of this cemetery. Each burial jar was lowered in the grave pit in the same orientation as if pointing to the one before. Elsewhere, the burials in this cemetery were situated at some distance from one another (Figure 2). Some were situated in relatively close proximity to one another, but not as close as the three at the centre of the cemetery.


A bronze ploughshare was found in the fill of the disturbed part of the grave pit of jar burial 23. Jar burial 24 had a short iron sword, an iron halberd and the traces on the inside of the lower jar of two bronze mirrors that had been robbed (Figure 3). Jar burial 27, situated close to the central cluster, had been disturbed, but yielded two short iron swords in the disturbed fill and an iron halberd in situ. …