Circles of stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan

A new exhibition at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre explores striking similarities between the stone monuments built by two unconnected but contemporary cultures, 6,000 miles apart. Carly Hilts went to find out more.

This year marks a century since the death of William Gowland (1842-1922), a pivotal but often overlooked figure in the story of Stonehenge. He pioneered the idea that the monument was not Roman nor druidic, but Neolithic in date. As an amateur archaeologist who had trained as a mining engineer, Gowland was chosen by the Society of Antiquaries to help re-erect one of the site’s sarsen standing stones, which had collapsed at the end of 1900, and to carry out an excavation at the site. (See CA 380 for more on historic and very recent restoration initiatives at Stonehenge.)

William Gowland’s excavation at Stonehenge in 1901. Image: © Society of Antiquaries of London

Today, Gowland’s excavation techniques – sieving to recover small finds, meticulous grid-recording – just look like good archaeological practice, but in England at the turn of the 20th century they were distinctly ahead of their time. In fact, Gowland had learned these methods during his time in Japan between 1872 and 1888. Although he was officially there to lend his knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy to the Osaka mint as Japan emerged from over 200 years of self-isolation, in his spare time Gowland excavated burial mounds known as kofun. He also observed people using rollers and ropes to move huge blocks of stone at Osaka Castle – something that informed his ideas about how Stonehenge was built.

These connections form part of Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan, a new temporary exhibition running at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Gowland’s story is represented by a selection of finds, drawings, and reports loaned by the Society of Antiquaries, Salisbury Museum, and the British Museum. The main focus, however, is dozens of Japanese objects, many exhibited abroad for the first time, which explore the huge stone circles that appeared in northern Japan during the middle-to-late Jo¯mon period, broadly contemporary with when Stonehenge was built and used.

These sites lie 6,000 miles from Stonehenge, and there is no suggestion of contact between Jo¯mon Japan and Neolithic Britain, but both populations inhabited island archipelagos on a similar latitude, with similar climates and natural resources. The exhibition draws out striking similarities in how the creators of two key Japanese sites – the O¯yu and Isedo¯tai stone circles (the former was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year) – and the builders of Stonehenge saw the world.

A 5,000-year-old flame pot from Iwanohara, Niigata, in Japan. IMAGE: English Heritage

In both cases we see large, circular monuments whose form evolved over centuries – and, while the Japanese monuments used thousands of large river stones rather than towering trilithons, their materials seem to have been deliberately sourced from specific locations and transported over some distance, not unlike the Stonehenge bluestones. The sites are also all notable for their apparent absence of domestic activity, being instead associated with communal ceremonies, burials, and solar alignments.

Objects on display include beautifully crafted miniature objects – tiny pots, ceramic mushrooms, and a figurine that may depict a bear – as well highly stylised human figures known as dogu¯. Star of the show, though, is an elaborate ‘flame pot’, which despite its virtuosic design was a cooking vessel – analysis of food residues on its interior suggests it was used for making fish stocks or stews (see CA 334 to read about a similar study focusing on dietary evidence from Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement close to Stonehenge). The parallels and differences drawn out in this exhibition offer an absorbing insight into worldviews that flourished thousands of years ago.

Further information
Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and prehistoric Japan will run at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre until August 2023. See www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/things-to-do/exhibitions/circles-of-stone for more details.
You can read more about the stone circles of Jōmon Japan in issue 115 (October/November 2022) of our international sister-magazine Current World Archaeology.