Circles of stone

6 mins read

Exploring the monuments of Jomon Japan

Numerous ancient stone circles are known in Japan, but how and why were these monuments built? Simon Kaner examines what these enigmatic structures can tell us about a key period of Japanese prehistory.

Numerous stone circles were built in Japan towards the end of the Jomon period. Of these, the most famous are the twin stone circles at Oyu, which were used from about 4,200 and 2,700 years ago. The purpose of these monuments remains mysterious, but excavations at the site have revealed remains of what appear to be burials, while so-called ‘sundials’ at the centre of the two circles suggest a solar connection. [Image: Kazuno City and Akita Prefecture Boards of Education]

The Jomon peoples of northern Japan were unusual among foraging societies for being great monument-builders. They constructed a range of such sites, including stone circles, settings of wooden pillars, shell middens, and bank enclosed cemeteries or embankments containing large quantities of material remains, all of which represented an ability to undertake significant investments in labour and probably also a high degree of forward-planning. Both of these abilities are more often associated with agricultural societies than hunter-gatherers. The Jomon monuments suggest an emphasis on ritual and ceremonialism, too, as well as a strong sense of engagement with particular locations in their landscapes. Examining such monuments and the range of activities that could be carried out in their shadow, as well as Jomon settlements, helps shed light on activity in the longest time-period in Japanese archaeology (spanning c.14,500-300 BC, with the stone circles mostly dating to the later phases of c.2500-300 BC). Its importance is reflected in 17 Jomon sites from northern Japan achieving World Heritage status in the summer of 2021.

The logo for the 17 Jomon sites in northern Japan that achieved
World Heritage status in 2021

In Japan, the term ‘stone circle’ is used to describe circular arrangements of stone setting, comprising rings of rocks that vary in weight from just a few kilogrammes to more than 100kg. These are not the megalithic monuments familiar to European readers and seen, for example, at Stonehenge and Avebury in Britain. Even so, the Japanese and European sites do share many attributes, including astronomical alignments, acting as the focus for seasonal ceremonies, and rituals connected with burial and the ancestors. Indeed, this autumn a new exhibition will open at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan will introduce some of the stone circles that were constructed towards the end of the Jomon period, and explore little-known links between research at Stonehenge and the history of Japanese archaeology.

The exhibition opens with a focus on William Gowland (1842-1922), a Victorian mining engineer and metallurgist who spent 16 years living in Japan as one of a generation of foreign specialists employed by the Meiji government to modernise Japan. This policy followed some 250 years of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world during the Edo period (1603-1868, with the policy of seclusion running from the 1620s to 1853), when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns. Gowland was employed by the newly established Osaka Mint (which is still in operation). While in Japan, he investigated some 400 mounded tombs – some of them megalithic in character – which were constructed between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD.

William Gowland drew on his knowledge of Japanese archaeology when publishing his findings at Stonehenge. The report highlighted the significance of sun worship in Japan, and – as shown here – used woodblock prints as illustrations. [Image: Gowland and Judd (1902) ‘III. Recent Excavations at Stonehenge’. Archaeologia 58: 37-118]

After returning to the UK in 1888, Gowland sold his extensive collection of Japanese archaeological artefacts as well as his archive to the British Museum, and focused on writing up his Japanese investigations. In 1901, he was engaged by the Society of Antiquaries of London to work at Stonehenge, where he put the archaeological skills honed in Japan to good use, undertaking a small excavation as part of the resetting of a large stone that had fallen down. Gowland’s subsequent report is notable because he was the first to argue convincingly that Stonehenge was built by people without metals, and also drew explicit parallels between sun worship in British prehistory and in Japan, where the imperial family claimed direct descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu. Japanese woodblock prints were used to illustrate Gowland’s report, including images of large blocks of stone being moved without machinery. Techniques to achieve this were well known in Japan, as massive stone walls – known as ishigaki – are characteristic of Japanese castles.

Set in stone

A plan of the double concentric circles at Oyu (TOP). Features at the centre of the circles are referred to as ‘sundials’ (BELOW), which seem to be aligned on the midwinter sunrise. [Image: Steve Colmer]

When considering Jomon stone circles, the most famous are the twin arrangements of stone rings at Oyu in Akita prefecture. These are known as the Manza and Nonakado circles, and they were created and used between 4,200 and 2,700 years ago. These sites were first discovered in 1931, before being investigated in detail in the 1940s and ’50s, and again from 1984 to 2008. Attention initially focused on the stone circles themselves. Both comprise concentric rings of stone settings (the greatest diameter is 48m at Manza and 44m at Nonakado), set out around a central sundial feature. High levels of phosphates from pits beneath some of the stone settings suggest that these originally held burials, most likely – based on the size and shape of the pits – made in a flexed position. Recent studies indicate that the circles and the central ‘sundial-like’ features were aligned on the midwinter sunrise. Fresh investigations in the area around the Oyu stone circles have produced evidence for a series of post-built structures – many of them rebuilt several times – which are thought to have had floors raised above ground level. One interpretation for these structures is that they were used to expose the bodies of the deceased before interring their bones in the burial pits, many of which are found beneath the stone settings. Alternatively, perhaps they were used to display seasonally gathered foodstuffs.

About 100km from Oyu, four circular arrangements occupy a north-facing terrace at Isedotai, which looks towards the Shirakami mountain range, itself one of Japan’s natural World Heritage sites. These monuments were discovered during construction of a new road leading to the local airport. Their importance – the only cluster of four stone circles known in Japan – led to the road being rerouted, allowing the archaeology to be preserved in situ. The stone rings measure between 45m and 32m in diameter, while a wealth of associated features was also discovered. These include post-built buildings, grave pits, storage pits, and linear ditches, among them a 1m-wide and -deep example that extended for more than 100m. Such ditches are very unusual at Jomon sites, which are not usually divided or demarcated by such features (unlike in the succeeding Yayoi period, usually dated to 300 BC-AD 300 in northern Japan).

While some of the stones used at Isedotai were relatively local, others were conveyed an appreciable distance, most likely from a river bed some 5km distant. A number of these stones were apparently selected because of their blue-and-white colour. Around 200 fragments of the ceramic figurines known as dogu were found at the site, including a large triangular flat figure with a protruding head. This was the only dogu that could be pieced back together: all of the others had been reduced to incomplete fragments, suggesting that the missing parts had been removed from the site, possibly as part of the ritual activity. Other distinctive objects from Isedotai include a large number of tripod stone objects, many of which bore traces of asphalt. This black, sticky substance occurs naturally in the Akita region, and was often used to glue arrowheads to shafts.

The stone circle at Omori-Katsuyama was created about 3,000 years ago and occupies a conspicuous point in the landscape at the foot of Mount Iwaki. [Image: Hirosaki City and Aomori Prefecture Boards of Education]

The relationship between stone circles and landscape features is particularly marked at the Omori-Katsuyama stone circle, a site discovered in the 1950s in Aomori prefecture. In this case, the monument is thought to be aligned on the winter solstice sunset over Mount Iwaki, a distinctive extinct volcano at whose foot the site is located. Omori-Katsuyama dates to c.3,000 years ago, making it a little later in date than most of the other stone circles and placing it in the Final Jomon phase (c.1000-300 BC). As at Oyu, and many other stone circles, the site was prepared by levelling the terrace surface before construction began. Pottery vessels and a range of stone tools used in the procurement and preparation of food were discovered, along with a large pit house 100m to the south-west of the stone circle. The stone circle also yielded more than 250 flat, circular stone discs of uncertain function, which are believed to have been used in ceremonial activities.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 115. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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