opposite A flame pot from Iwanohara, Niigata. Late Jomon period. Size: 31cm tall; 32cm diameter (base)

Set in stone: Jomon Japan

As a new exhibition opens at the Stonehenge visitor centre, curator and archaeologist Susan Greaney explores the incredible artistry and ingenuity of people living during Japan’s Jomon period and the parallels to their contemporaries in Britain and Ireland.


On a plateau surrounded by the forested mountains of northern Japan lie the astonishing stone circles at Oyu, one of 17 prehistoric sites recently inscribed by UNESCO as part of a new World Heritage Site. These monuments were built in the late Jomon period, about 4,000 years ago, a time roughly contemporary with the early Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland. The two circles, measuring 42m and 48m in diameter, were constructed from thousands of large river cobbles laid flat on the ground. Each circle consists of two concentric circuits of laid stones, with a single upright pillar set into a radial pattern of stones, much like a sundial. To an archaeologist like me, well acquainted with the standing stones of western Europe, the form of these stone circles in Japan was surprising and unfamiliar. But as I learnt more about these remarkable structures in preparation for our exhibition at Stonehenge, striking parallels and similarities with stone circles and the practices of Neolithic people in Britain emerged.

The 8,500 river cobbles used to build the two stone circles at Oyu were carried about 7km from the bed of the nearby River Akuya. Each weighs between 20 and 200kg. Although not quite the same engineering feat as bringing the bluestones all the way from south-west Wales to form part of Stonehenge or the greywacke stones from the coast of Ireland to Newgrange, this was still an incredible communal effort showing a desire to use particular types of stones and construct the circles at a specific location.

A flame pot from Iwanohara, Niigata. Late Jomon period. Size: 31cm tall; 32cm diameter (base).
IMAGE: © Nagaoka City, photography by Tadahiro Ogawa

The cobbles were set in clusters, sometimes placed in small rings or other arrangements. Each cluster is likely to have originally covered a burial, and so the larger circuits would have emerged slowly over time as more burials with their own stone arrangements were added. Stonehenge and a handful of other Neolithic henge monuments and stone circles similarly share a funerary dimension, with the cremated remains of the dead placed in and around the monuments; an estimated 150 people were buried at Stonehenge. Finally, there is some evidence that the ‘sundial’ standing stones at the two stone circles at Oyu were aligned towards the midsummer solstice sunset and the midwinter solstice sunrise, much like the timber and stone circles in the Stonehenge landscape.

Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan, which is now open at the Stonehenge visitor centre in Wiltshire, is the first time that an exhibition in Britain has told the story of prehistoric Japan. Archaeological artefacts found at the Oyu stone circles, as well as several other sites, have been borrowed from regional museums in Japan to tell the story of these stone circles and of the lives and rituals of the people who built them. With the story of prehistoric Japan presented alongside the permanent Stonehenge displays, visitors can compare and contrast the deep pasts of two places on opposite sides of the globe.

above The Oyu stone circles in northern Japan.
The Oyu stone circles in northern Japan. IMAGE: © Kazuno City Board of Education

From the Oyu and Isedotai stone circles come a range of stone and clay miniature objects, which are thought to have been part of ritual activities: tiny jars and vases, little clay mushrooms, small bells, decorated plaques, and a bear figurine. A decorated jar and beautiful incised bowl exemplify the types of ceramic vessels that Jomon people were making and using. The bowl has traces of lacquer, which reveal the mastery of this complex coating technique. The word ‘Jo-mon’ means cord-marked, referring to the pottery that was made and used throughout this period, where twisted plant fibres were impressed into the wet clay to create a distinctive style of decoration, as we show with one large typical example from the late middle Jomon period (c.3000-2500 BC).

As well as these cord-marked vessels, the Jomon period in Japan is also famous for its distinctive ‘flame pots’, extraordinarily complex pottery vessels. They have come to represent the contribution of Jomon heritage to Japanese culture, becoming an icon of prehistory much in the same way that Stonehenge has become a touchstone for the deep past in Britain. Their ornate extended rims are formed into flowing and intricate patterns evoking blazing flames, as illustrated by a stunning complete flame pot from Iwanohara in Niigata Prefecture. Flame pots are largely found along the Shinano River valley in central western Japan, part of the longest river system in the country. They come in a huge range of sizes and variations, but all show the accomplished skills of Jomon potters. It is thought that the decorative styles and shapes were closely related to social identities and community belonging in prehistory. While the forms are complex and highly decorative, carbonised food residues inside some pots indicate that they were used for cooking, although perhaps for feasting rather than everyday use.

above Miniature finds from the Isedotai stone circles include these tiny jars and vessels, clay mushrooms, bells, and a bear figurine. Late Jomon period. Size: 4.8 x 4.1cm (clay bell) below Decorated ceramic bowl, with traces of red lacquer, from Isedotai stone circles. Late middle Jomon period. Size: 15cm tall; 20cm diameter
Miniature finds from the Isedotai stone circles include these tiny jars and vessels, clay mushrooms, bells, and a bear figurine. Late Jomon period. Size: 4.8 x 4.1cm (clay bell)
IMAGE: © Kitaakita City Board of Education

At English Heritage, we commissioned expert potter and experimental archaeologist Graham Taylor to make a replica of the Jomon flame pot on loan from the Umataka Jomon Museum, so that exhibition visitors can touch and see the intricate details up close. Taylor reflected that this was one of the most challenging tasks he has attempted and needed a huge amount of research. Preparation included a trip to the British Museum to handle four flame pots currently on loan from Japan, looking closely at the methods used to create the vessel structure and the details of the decoration of the original makers, who were clearly expert potters and artists. The decoration proved to be the most arduous part of the process of making the pot itself, which took many hours.

One group of objects displayed in the exhibition represents a practice that is almost completely unknown in prehistoric Britain: the representation of the human form. These are Japanese dogu, clay figurines which have been found at both stone circles and settlement sites. In the middle Jomon period (c.3500-2500 BC), dogu were typically of a flat form with a body created from a slab of clay, a face with prominent eyes and ears, and often with hairstyles, which were attached separately. These figures often have breasts, leading people to suggest that they are female, perhaps a representation of some sort of mother goddess or other female deity. Usually they are found broken, hinting that they were smashed and buried during certain rituals. Later, more three-dimensional dogu figurines were made, but there are many regional and temporal variations in their form.

Decorated ceramic bowl, with traces of red lacquer, from Isedotai stone circles. Late middle Jomon period. Size: 15cm tall; 20cm diameter.

The decoration, which sometimes suggests clothing, and hairstyles of the figurines give us some clues as to how Jomon people may have appeared. Alongside finds such as beautiful flat earrings made of serpentine, clay spools which would have sat in the ear lobe, and a variety of pendants and beads made of clay and stone, they show that people regularly wore jewellery and personal adornments. Slender needles made from bird bones demonstrate that people were tailoring clothes using leather, furs, and plant fibres.

It is not just the ceremonial prehistoric monuments built in Japan that are impressive, but also their large permanent settlements. These mainly date from the middle Jomon period, about the time that Stonehenge was built in Britain. The largest known settlement is Sannai Maruyama, located near the northern city of Aomori, not far from the coast on a terrace of the Okidate River. The site was discovered in 1992 during the construction of a new baseball stadium, and subsequent excavations have revealed more than 600 early and middle Jomon houses, known as ‘pit-dwellings’. Large parts have been preserved and opened to the public as an open-air archaeological museum. The settlement was occupied between about 5,900 and 4,400 years ago, and provides fascinating insights into the life of prehistoric people in Japan.

The people living at Sannai Maruyama were surrounded by abundant resources – fish and seafood from both warm and cold sea currents as well as the nearby river, fertile soils for plant growth, and widespread chestnut trees, which were carefully managed for their nutritious nuts. Jomon people lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing; rice cultivation and other types of agriculture did not begin until the subsequent Yayoi period. Despite this, many people appear to have led sedentary lives in permanent settlements, and later to have constructed elaborate monuments, including the stone circles. It seems the community at Sannai Maruyama specialised in chestnuts, acorns, and other plant foods, developing technologies to store and process these resources to support a large and sedentary population. This evidence contradicts commonly held assumptions of social development where farming is often seen as an essential prerequisite for the development of monument-building and permanent settlements; these evolutionary models clearly do not apply in prehistoric Japan, and we should question whether they did in other prehistoric societies across the world.

Jade bead found at the settlement site of Sannai Maruyama. 3500-2000 BC. Size: 4.8 x 4.5 x 2.5cm.
IMAGE: © Sannai Maruyama Jomon Culture Center
A clay dogu figurine from the Oyu stone circles. Middle Jomon period. Size: 5.8 x 3.7cm
IMAGES: © Kazuno-City Board of Education; © Trustees of the British Museum.
Jomon stone axe from near Izumo, southern Japan. The red writing records where it was found. Size: 0.7 x 4.3 x 5.3cm

As well as the dwellings, excavations at Sannai Maruyama have uncovered burials, large post-built structures, storage pits, and a communal longhouse. There are also large middens, huge mounds of earth, ash, dung, and other debris that contain numerous different artefacts. Many of the more than 1,600 clay figurines recovered from the site were found in these middens, and so perhaps they were places of household ritual. Other artefacts, a selection of which have been loaned to the exhibition, provide an insight into the daily lives of the inhabitants; for example, bone fishhooks and quernstones for grinding and crushing nuts. Stone tools such as arrowheads, spearheads, axeheads, and scrapers were used for hunting and all manner of plant-, wood-, and hide-working.

During the time that Sannai Maruyama was occupied, there was increasing long-distance trade in both raw materials and finished products. Obsidian, a beautiful black volcanic glass, was probably brought from the island of Hokkaido, at least 500km away. The material was used to make spearheads, arrowheads, and other tools, which were probably imported to Sannai Maruyama as finished objects. Nephrite (jade), amber, and serpentine were also imported and used to make jewellery such as beads and pendants. Nephrite, for example, occurs at only one source in Japan, the Itoigawa region in Niigata Prefecture, over 700km from Sannai Maruyama. These finds suggest that the settlement was a centre for trading, where objects made from exotic materials, and the raw materials themselves, could be exchanged. Long-distance journeys seem to have been common in Jomon Japan, just as they were in Neolithic and early Bronze Age Britain.

Moving on from these prehistoric parallels, the exhibition presents some surprising connections between Stonehenge and Japan. The work of two figures, the archaeologist William Gowland and the artist Yoshijirō Urushibara, is explored in relation to Stonehenge, showing how people have crossed national and cultural boundaries to share their expertise and knowledge. Yoshijirō ‘Mokuchu’ Urushibara (1889-1953) was trained as a woodcut print artist and travelled to London in 1910 to demonstrate printing at the Anglo-Japanese exhibition that year (also heading to Paris to showcase this traditional Japanese artistry). Urushibara stayed in Britain, where he worked as an artist and was employed from 1912 by the British Museum to mount and restore Japanese and Chinese prints and pictures. During this period, he visited Stonehenge on several occasions and made a series of woodblock prints of the monument, depicting it in both daylight and moonlight. Two of these prints, on loan from Salisbury Museum, feature in the exhibition.

top Yoshijirō ‘Mokuchu’ Urushibara, Stonehenge (Moonlight). Woodblock print, 1910s. Size: 21.5 x 34cm above Yoshijirō ‘Mokuchu’ Urushibara, Stonehenge at Dawn. Woodblock print, 1910s. Size: 21.5 x 34cm
Yoshijirō ‘Mokuchu’ Urushibara, Stonehenge (Moonlight). Woodblock print, 1910s. Size: 21.5 x 34cm.
IMAGES: Courtesy of Salisbury Museum © English Heritage
Yoshijirō ‘Mokuchu’ Urushibara, Stonehenge at Dawn. Woodblock print, 1910s. Size: 21.5 x 34cm.

The other figure, William Gowland, was appointed in 1906 to oversee excavations at Stonehenge, during the restoration of the leaning Stone 56. These were the first scientific works at the site, and were influenced by archaeological techniques Gowland had observed while living and working in Japan over the previous 16 years. There, Gowland had been employed as a metallurgist for the Osaka mint, but in his spare time he surveyed tombs from the Kofun period (AD 300-538), excavated a burial mound at Shibayama in Osaka in 1887, and collected Jomon-period artefacts. Combining methods learnt from Japanese archaeology, with geological and archaeological techniques used in Britain, Gowland used a wooden ‘registering frame’ and ‘vertical rod’ to record the three-dimensional position of every artefact. This allowed him to deduce that Stonehenge had been built in a pre-metal age. He also interpreted the artefacts he found and the monument itself with reference to Japanese ritual sites and building practices.

As part of preparing the exhibition, a small group of curators and interpretation staff from English Heritage travelled to Japan to visit the key sites and museums and select the archaeological objects for display. This gave us great insight into the way that prehistory and archaeology are presented to the public in Japan. For example, several museums have large-scale dioramas representing prehistoric life, and all integrate family- and child-friendly aspects into the displays. Following this tradition, our exhibition features the work of Japanese reconstruction artist Sahoko Aki and calligrapher Aya Burbanks, as well as yuru-chara. In Japan, most regions, towns, and companies have yuru-chara, cute mascot characters who represent the essence of that place or business. Several of the museums we visited had these characters, as did the World Heritage Site promotion office in the city of Aomori. We decided to create some of our own, and our exhibition designers Northover&Brown developed two characters, one who represents Stonehenge and another in the form of a Japanese dogu.

With this exhibition, English Heritage aims to celebrate Japanese prehistory and the new World Heritage Site, to provoke astonishment at the skill and creativity of prehistoric people, and to show how the sharing of expertise and cultural heritage across the world helps us gain a better understanding of our own and each other’s pasts.

Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan runs at the Stonehenge visitor centre in Wiltshire, UK, until August 2023. For more information, visit: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge