Fifth-Century Rulers of the Kawachi Plain, Osaka, and Early State Formation in Japan: Some Recent Publications

By Pearson, Richard | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Fifth-Century Rulers of the Kawachi Plain, Osaka, and Early State Formation in Japan: Some Recent Publications


Pearson, Richard, Antiquity


In this brief review I introduce recent publications on the archaeology of the Kawachi Plain, Osaka, Japan, in the Middle Kofun period dating to the late fourth to early sixth centuries AD (the Kofun or Mounded Tomb period is generally thought to have lasted from 240 to 600 AD). These convey an impression of the vast amount of information gathered in the past decade, as well as new syntheses.

In the fifth century, power shifted from the Nata Basin to the alluvial plains of Kawachi, bordering Osaka Bay. A new group of rulers achieved a new level of craft production, engaged in international trade, erected two burial grounds some 10km apart, and conducted burial rituals which emphasised military power by offering many iron weapons to their dead. In size, the largest tumuli, of mounded earth in the shape of a keyhole, with conjoined square front mound and rear round mound containing the main burial, rival the Chinese burial mound of Emperor Qin Shihuang and the Egyptian pyramid of Khufu. For example, the Daisen Ryo (Nintoku tomb)is about 850m in total length. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century the major mounds have been controlled by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, as they are believed by some to be the resting places of the ancestors of the present Japanese Imperial Family. Such tombs cannot be excavated and archaeologists have limited access to them. Nevertheless there have been excavations of some large so-called royal tombs as well as surface finds and finds from the moats which surround the tombs. Many smaller tombs in the area, not protected by the Imperial Household Agency, have been destroyed by rapid urbanisation in the region. A substantial body of information has accumulated in the past 150 years but until now it has been very scattered.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The tomb groups of Kawachi

In March 2008 Nara University published a 600-page report of a 3-year project to review existing knowledge of groups of large tumuli, principally the Furuichi and Mozu tomb groups of Kawachi (Shiraishi 2008). Nine faculty members of local universities and 10 members of local agencies for cultural preservation contributed to the research, which was funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The publication is organised into four major sections. The first provides an exhaustive literature review and assessment of the present situation of the tombs. Previous excavations are summarised and a map of each mound at a scale of 1/2500 gives the location of each trench. The tabulated data include the excavator, reason for excavation, major features and artefacts, special information derived from the excavation, and site report reference. There have been about 300 excavations of the Mozu and Furuichi groups and 150 for the earlier Tamateyama group. The second section includes a discussion of the formation processes of the tombs, including local geomorphology and attempts to create a construction sequence using stylistic dating of local grey stoneware (sueki) and earthenware figures set on the tomb exteriors (haniwa). In the third section GIS data are presented and these are on a CD-ROM accompanying the report. Examples show aerial views, views from the Ishikawa River and from the sea, showing the silhouettes visible to people approaching from the sea. The fourth section includes 12 interpretive studies of the tombs and their contents. This publication is an immense contribution of exceptional value for research and reference.

Tombs of the great

For readers who wish to place the largest tombs treated above in a broader context, an excellent place to start is Ichinose's comprehensive synthesis of royal tombs and keyhole-shaped tombs (Ichinose 2005). He deals with chronology, tomb contents, the tombs of outlying chiefs, and changes in tomb construction. In the late third, fourth, and early fifth centuries, stone burial chambers were dug into the mounds from the top, while in the late fifth to seventh centuries horizontal burial chambers were built at ground level before the construction of the mound. …

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