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.
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.
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
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 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.
Among the most intriguing objects excavated at Oyu is this small clay plaque, just a couple of centimetres tall. Jomon specialist Tatsuo Kobayashi suggests that it indicates Jomon people had a clear concept of numbers – the upper central hole representing one; the two ‘eyes’ representing two; the two sets of dots on each side of a central vertical row of five, representing three, four and five; with further dots on the back. In addition, this month a CAT scan of the object commissioned by the Oyu Stone Circle Museum and created by the Akita Industrial Technology Centre and Toru Miyao of the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History – the lead Japanese curator for the Circles of Stone exhibition – shows that the object has a hollow centre, from the base to the ‘mouth’. Hollow and similarly ‘pierced’ ceramic figures are well known from many other sites, and may indicate an awareness of the significance of internal organs. This is the first time these images have been published. The object was recognised during post-excavation work at Oyu, and like so many of the other artefacts comes from a general spread of pottery and other items rather than from any specific feature.
Beyond the circles
Some 10km south of the centre of the modern city of Aomori lies a terrace that rises from 80m to 160m above sea level. This is home to the Komakino site, whose central element is a large stone circle comprising a central, inner, and outer ring, and dating to roughly 4,400-4,000 years ago. The area of the inner ring is 514m2, while the area between the inner and outer rings is 550m2, resulting in a total area of 1,064m2. A range of other features lie nearby, illustrating how the stone circles can lie at the heart of extensive complexes. These elements include 14 ritual stone features, five stacked stone features, six pit houses, 257 large pit features, 181 small pits, four jar burials, four buried pottery features, two waste areas, one spring, 10 remnants of paths, 12 patches of burned earth, and three pits for extracting clay. The inner and outer rings are contemporaneous with the site’s jar burials.
The stones at Komakino were arranged in various ways, including as standing stones, stones stacked on top of each other, and stones placed to create horizontal and vertical patterns. As a first step, sections of ground earmarked for the inner and outer rings were prepared by cutting platforms into them, aiding the creation of the three-dimensional Komakino-style stone arrangements. It is estimated that approximately 500m3 of soil was shifted during the preparation and creation of the inner and outer stone rings, providing a sense of the labour involved. The end result was akin to a 360° amphitheatre, with the slope rising out from the central square to the inner ring and then down to the outer ring. Steps led down to the nearby pit houses.
Experimental ethnoarchaeological work has been carried out at Komakino to estimate how much work went into constructing the stone circle. Although the wooden implements needed to transport stones to the site have not been recovered, archaeologists working there examined local ethnographic records to determine possible methods. The three strongest contenders are wooden sleds capable of carrying approximately 90kg, a ‘carrying pole’ supported by two people and able to transport approximately 30kg, and individual backpacks suitable for loads of 15kg. Two separate routes were considered, one of 995m down a gentle slope for the sled and the carrying pole, and a steeper, more direct path of 387m suitable for individuals using backpacks. Estimates varied between around 8,000 person minutes (using a wooden sledge with no time for breaks) and just over 31,000 minutes (using backpacks and factoring in breaks).
Stone circles are also known in Hokkaido, although these are not included in the new World Heritage Site. The largest is Washinoki, not far from the shell middens along the coast of Volcano Bay. It was investigated in advance of highway construction and then preserved in situ, with the road relocated to a tunnel running beneath the site. The stone circle has a maximum diameter of about 37m, and comprises an outer double ring of stone arrangements alongside an oval arrangement at the centre of the site. More than 600 stones, mostly 30-40cm in length and mainly set standing in the ground, were used to construct the monument. They were brought to the site from a river about a kilometre distant. Immediately south of the southern edge of the stone circle, a circular pit cemetery has been discovered. It covered 11.6m by 9.2m and contained seven grave pits. Other distinctive objects from the site include fragments of a large flat dogu, thought to have been repaired during the Jomon period using white clay, and several objects in the shape of squid, still one of the choicest delicacies of the region.
Another important Jomon stone circle lies at Oshoro, in Otaru city, on the northern edge of the Oshima Peninsula. This monument was discussed by Neil Gordon Munro in the first synthesis of Japanese archaeology, Prehistoric Japan, which was originally published in 1908. Munro noted the possible directional alignments of the stones at Oshoro, but even then it was appreciated that they had been moved around by the indigenous Ainu peoples who subsequently occupied the area. For Munro and other early archaeologists of Japan, the Ainu were regarded as the most likely direct descendants of the Jomon populations. Today, however, we know that there is a complex cultural history separating the Final Jomon from the historically recorded Ainu, who are now a UNESCO-recognised Indigenous People. They have their own National Museum, Upopoy, in Shiraoi on the south coast of Hokkaido, which opened in 2020.
The stone circles of Isedotai, Komakino, Omori-Katsuyama, and Oyu are among the Jomon sites in the new World Heritage Site. They were inscribed alongside several settlements (including the largest Jomon settlement yet discovered, at Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture), bank-enclosed burial-enclosures at Kiusu, shell middens, and some exceptionally well-preserved waterlogged sites including Korekawa-Nakai and Kamegaoka, which are roughly contemporary with the stone circles. All told, they offer an excellent sample of sites showcasing Jomon archaeology.
Examining some of these sites helps to flesh out the world in which the stones circles existed. The major Jomon settlement at Sannai Maruyama occupies terraces overlooking the modern-day city of Aomori and Mutsu Bay. The settlement extends across an area of some 42ha and underwent varying intensities of occupation, from 5,900 to 4,200 years ago, during the Early and Middle Jomon periods. Today it is home to a major museum and historical park, as well as several reconstructed features. Remains of more than 1,000 buildings, including sizable longhouses with multiple fireplaces along their long axis, storehouses raised on pillars, and many smaller pit houses – presumed to be family dwellings – were excavated in the 1980s and ’90s, alongside inhumation cemeteries, immense pottery middens – up to 5m in depth – and an exceptional setting of six massive posts, the bases of which were preserved in the waterlogged ground. Tonnes of pottery and stone tools were recovered, along with more than 1,800 ceramic dogu figures, representing one of the greatest assemblages found anywhere in Japan. Preserved plant remains were also present. A heap of elderberry seeds with fruit flies was interpreted as evidence for the fermentation of alcoholic drinks. There are hints, too, of a step towards agricultural methods, with sweet chestnut trees perhaps being cultivated nearby.
Across the Tsugaru Straits, numerous Jomon settlements flourished at the same time as Sannai Maruyama. At Ofune, the remains of some 100 pit dwellings, many dug to a considerable depth, were found along with midden-mound earthworks, and associated with a grave-pit cemetery a short distance to the south-west. Bones of sea mammals, notably whale and seal, were recovered, along with plentiful plant remains, in particular chestnuts.
One of the longest-occupied settlements is at Kakinoshima, which overlooks the Pacific coast in the southern part of the Oshima Peninsula. A series of important discoveries made there can be dated from 9,000-3,000 years ago, meaning the site spans the Initial to Late Jomon. Early in the occupational sequence, some 9,000 years ago, someone special was buried wrapped in a blanket made of plant fibres coated in lacquer, an act that provides us with the earliest well-dated use of lacquer anywhere in the world. Around 7,000 years ago, some of the most-evocative artefacts known from the Jomon period were buried as grave goods: small clay plaques bearing the imprints of infants’ footprints, and perforated with two holes suggesting that they were originally strung and worn as pendants. About 4,000 years ago – at the transition between the Middle and Late Jomon periods – a large part of the site was enclosed by a large earthwork over 190m in length and made of midden material. These finds are all displayed in an adjacent museum, along with the only object designated as a National Treasure from the whole of Hokkaido: a large hollow ceramic figurine dating from the Late Jomon, discovered by a local lady digging her vegetable patch at Chobonaino.
Information from these settlements is complemented by that from shell middens. These contain important evidence both for subsistence activities – especially the development of a sophisticated fishing technology, including harpoons, rods and fishhooks, and net sinkers – as well as burial practices during the Jomon period, as the alkaline shells counteract the acidic, volcanic soil, thereby preserving human bone. A cluster of such sites occur on the coast of Volcano Bay. Five exceptionally well-preserved shell middens at Kitakogane, dating to 7,000-5,500 years ago during the Early Jomon, produced a number of human burials, as well as fish bones (including tuna and flounder) and shellfish (such as clams, oysters, and scallops). At Irie, the remains of 15 human burials were recovered, dating to 5,500-2,800 years ago, while nearby Takasago furnished 28 burials dating to the Final Jomon, some 3,000 years ago. Grave goods from some of these burials indicate that their incumbents were involved in long-distance trade, acquiring boar tusks and shells that were not native to Hokkaido.
There is less evidence for substantial settlements during the Final Jomon in Hokkaido. New forms of burial appeared at this time, including pits positioned within banked circular enclosures. A number of examples are known across southern Hokkaido, the most famous being at Kiusu, within easy reach of the main airport on the island at Chitose. Across an area of about 5ha, eight large circular pits, ranging in diameter from 18m to 75m, and up to 5m in depth, were dug, with the soil piled up around their edges. Each enclosure contained several inhumation graves, many with rich burial goods, including pottery, beads, and other accessories. Some burials were marked with standing stones.
While the Kiusu enclosures were in operation, people living across the straits in northern Honshu exploited the low-lying wetlands. Kamegaoka, on the Tsugaru Peninsula, is a site that has been associated with the production of ancient ceramics for hundreds of years. It is the type-site for an eponymous style of pottery, which included many distinctive black burnished fine wares designed for serving food and drink. Perhaps the most-famous elements of its material culture, though, are the so-called ‘goggle-eyed’ dogu figures. These hollow, composite objects were covered in intricate designs. The first example was discovered in the 1880s at Kamegaoka, while the name ‘goggle-eyed’ was coined by Shogoro Tsuboi, the first professor of anthropology at the University of Tokyo, who saw snow goggles used by Siberian peoples in the ethnographic collections of the British Museum. The coast of northern Japan is still among the snowiest places on earth, and Tsuboi recognised how such artefacts could have helped Jomon people during the winter. More-recent research has questioned this interpretation, though, by identifying the large protruding eyes of these dogu as the culmination of a long stylistic development.
Korekawa-Nakai, on the Pacific coast in the suburbs of the city of Hachinohe, has also produced evidence for a residential area, cemetery, food-processing area, dump, and place for rituals. The site was first investigated in the 1930s, with the waterlogged levels producing abundant organic remains, in particular lacquered wooden and ceramic vessels, along with food remains such as walnuts and horse chestnuts. Analysis of the plant remains suggests that, as at Sannai Maruyama, the people living at Korekawa-Nakai took steps to manage the environment around their settlement, perhaps encouraging particular species – notably the lacquer tree – to grow, thereby husbanding their resources.
Other sites in the Korekawa cluster demonstrate that the area was occupied from the Early Jomon period. In recent years, excavations at Kazahari 1 have revealed a settlement featuring pit houses and a cemetery. Another exceptional ceramic dogu figure – sitting in a pose thought to indicate childbirth, with its hands clasped – was recovered from one of the pit houses. All parts of this object were present, and it was suggested that it fell off a shelf when the house was abandoned. By the time Kazahari was a centre of settlement in northern Honshu, rice was being grown by the first farmers in the southern part of the archipelago in Kyushu. The interaction between the rice-growing farmers and the last Jomon foragers is one of the hot topics in Japanese archaeology, but among many other changes the arrival of agriculture presaged the end of building stone circles.
At Goshono, somewhat to the south and close to the Pacific coast of Iwate prefecture, there was another Jomon settlement contemporary with the later phases of Sannai Maruyama, dating to 4,500-4,000 years ago. Remains of large numbers of pit dwellings were discovered, along with several that had burned down in situ, preserving excellent traces of their fabric, including incontrovertible evidence that soil sods were used for roofs. These pit dwellings clustered in groups comprising a larger house surrounded by between three and five smaller buildings. The settlement area was interspersed with inhumation graves, above which stood stone settings 2-3m in diameter. Two larger, circular arrangements of stones, 30-40m in diameter, were discovered in the eastern and western parts of the site.
There is still much debate about the origins and functions of the Jomon monuments. Recent studies suggest that the tradition of constructing stone monuments during the Jomon period can be traced to the central Honshu region around 6,000 years ago, with it subsequently being taken up by other Jomon societies, and reaching its peak of development in northern Honshu between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago. The Jomon tradition ended in the later 1st millennium BC in northern Japan, with the construction of stone circles ceasing as the influence of metal-using rice farmers from western Japan began to be felt. It is clear that many of the monuments were associated with burials, but increasing evidence for archaeoastronomical alignments and an orientation on key points in the landscape indicates that these sites were also important for creating a sense of place and marking time in Jomon societies.
Such studies are underpinned by fresh research setting the sites in their broader landscapes, aided by discoveries away from the stone circles themselves – in a manner comparable to what is happening in the Stonehenge landscape. Advances in dating are enabling us to recreate the phasing and developmental histories of these sites, an endeavour that has also been encouraged by the detailed sequences now available for Stonehenge. As part of the research associated with the exhibition project, we are creating a 3D virtual-reality database of Jomon monuments, including detailed recoding using drones, which will enable us to bring these fascinating sites to global audiences. Through this we hope to clarify the similarities and differences between the traditions of building stone circles at either end of Eurasia in prehistory.
Acknowledgements and further reading The author would like to thank all the Japanese archaeologists who have welcomed him to their sites over the years, and shared their data and ideas so freely. The exhibition at Stonehenge is generously sponsored by the Ishibashi Foundation, and a preparatory trip with colleagues from English Heritage was supported by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. Further details can be found at www.sainsbury-institute.org/news/online-jomon-matsuri. Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan is at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre from 30 September 2022 to August 2023. More information about Jomon archaeology is included in An Illustrated Companion to Japanese Archaeology, edited by Werner Steinhaus, Simon Kaner, Shinya Shoda, and Megumi Jinno. Two free downloadable publications are The Age of Great Monuments: the Jomon in Japan and the Neolithic in Britain, vol.8 of Jomon (www.sainsbury-institute.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/JOMON-Vol.8-Stone-Circles-Spring-2022.pdf) and Tatsuo Kobayashi’s Jomon Reflections (edited by Simon Kaner and Oki Nakamura; www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/jomon-reflections.html). Details about the Jomon Sites of Northern Japan UNESCO World Heritage designation can be found at https://jomon-japan.jp/en/.