Water (especially springs) and some of the distinctive rock formations found throughout the Japanese islands often took on a special significance for early inhabitants of the archipelago, and the water and stone continue to be of symbolic importance in the present day. A number of archaeological sites from the Yayoi and Kofun periods (c. 500 BC – AD 710) have produced evidence for the importance of water and rocks in ceremonial practices and cult beliefs at this time. In this module we examine discoveries from several sites in detail, to trace the development of these ideas.

The site of Ikegami-Sone is one of the most important early farming villages in Japan. Situated near the coast in the central part of the Osaka Plain, it played a major role in the spread of rice farming into the region that was to become the location of the first capitals of the Japanese state. Ikegami-Sone was different to ordinary farming villages, such as those introduced in the module on ‘The Image of Rice’. Of particular significance for the current theme was the discovery of a group of buildings and features that seem to prefigure the later development of Shinto shrines. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question:

What was the importance of large buildings at the centre of some early farmers’ settlements?

Fig. 01

Plan of the Yayoi settlement at Ikegami-Sone, Osaka prefecture

The village of Ikegami-Sone was occupied for several hundred years during the Yayoin period (500 BC – 250 AD). This large site comprises a number of elements. The central area was enclosed by a series of ditches, or moats, which may have had defensive, symbolic, or practical functions, including drainage and irrigation, or perhaps a combination of these. The settlement was located on the coastal fringes of the Osaka plain, in a riverine environment prone to flooding. The people who lived at Ikegami-Sone built a variety of structures in addition to the ditches, including pit-houses (family dwellings), buildings with elevated floors raised up on pillars set in the ground (possibly granaries or storage structures), and a succession of large buildings. This largest building in the centre of the residential area was over 19 metres long and 4 metres wide, much larger than the average family dwelling. Close by was a large well, which seems to have been protected by a roof. Some archaeologists interpret these structures as an early shrine and a sacred well.


Fig. 02

Remains of the large building and well at Ikegami-Sone, Osaka prefecture

The excavations revealed that this building was rebuilt three or four times within a comparatively short time during in the latter half of the Middle Yayoi (over a period of several decades, during the 1st century BC). The first phase of the building has a different alignment to the other four which were all built on the same alignment. In the bottom of 18 postholes, the remains of wooden posts of Japanese cypress and Japanese zelkova were found.


Fig. 03

Reconstruction of the central building and well at Ikegami-Sone[/cm_tooltip_parse]

The building is believed to have been in the raised-floor style with a gable-roof. The well is 2 metres in diameter and is to the south of the central building. The round frame of the well was made by hollowing out a large camphor tree. The well may have been built at the same time as the phase of second central building. The well and central building were later rebuilt in the same position. This indicates that the central building and the well were related facilities.


Fig. 04

What can the analysis of the remains of plants at Ikegami-Sone tell us?

In some circumstances, archaeologists are able to recover the remains of plant material during excavations. This was the case at Ikegami-Sone, and archaeobotanist Hosoya Aoi analysed the plant remains. The results of her analysis, shown in this graph, show that the rice, once it had been harvested, was processed in the area around the large central building, as well as in the area around the normal dwellings. This processing included dehusking the rice (perhaps using wooden pounders as we see in the module on ‘The Image of Rice’), and then sieving and winnowing to remove the chaff from the rice grains themselves. How can we interpret these findings?


Fig. 05

Plan of features near the central building and well at Ikegami-Sone

Ikegami-Sone was an important centre of production in the Osaka plain.  Excavations produced evidence for a series of industrial activities, including metalworking, and caches of stone materials including sanukite, a grey relatively soft stone favoured by the Yayoi farmers to make rice reaping knives and other tools, and which is found in the mountains that mark the eastern boundary of the Osaka plain. Other items were deposited in the ground as well, including a number of ceramic vessels thought to have been used as pots for catching octopus. The plan of excavated features suggests that the area of the settlement was divided into a number of different zones by a series of boundary ditches.  What does this kind of spatial arrangement suggest about the organisation of activities on the site? Did some of these apparently practical features and objects have a more symbolic significance?


Fig. 06

Caches of stone flakes from Ikegami-Sone, Osaka prefecture

A group of three pits east of the large well contained a large quantity of stone flakes which have been prepared for making stone knives. The stone is sanukite, a kind of andesite volcanic rock, from Mt. Nijo on the border between Osaka and Nara prefectures. A stone axe, a polishing stone and whetstone were also found. This is a whole set of stone knife making components. These discoveries suggest that people at Ikegami-Sone were controlling the circulation of raw materials essential to the manufacture of stone tools across the whole region.


Fig. 07

Pots for catching octopus found at Ikegami-Sone, Osaka prefecture

More than 40 pots with holes close to the rim were found in a rectangular pit at Ikeagmi-Sone. They are relatively small compared with other Yayoi pottery, and were probably used to catch the iidako octopus, perhaps a special export from Ikegami-Sone. But why were so many pots found together in one pit? Were they just being stored there or was it a ritual deposit?


Fig. 08

Decorated pottery fragments from Ikegami-Sone

Two sherds (fragments) of pottery with pictures of buildings were found in the central area, and two sherds with pictures of deer and a “dragon” were found in the residential area. The two central area sherds came from the central building and a pit 20 metres south of the building. Both pictures show a raised floor building constructed with several posts and gable roof. These sherds are dated to the Middle Yayoi, and are assumed to be representations of the existing central building. They were used to help in the reconstruction of the central building in the historical park of Ikegami-Sone in figure 03.


Key question

  • How can we understand the functions of central buildings?

Secondary questions

  • Was the central building used for ritual or for daily activities?
  • What is the evidence for each interpretation?

The elements of nature are an important part of religious belief in Japan. Water has a special place, but so also do rocks, mountains and islands. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

What can archaeological evidence tell us about the nature of ritual practices in the Kofun period?

Fig. 09

Plan of the Middle Kofun period site of Mitsudera 1, Gunma prefecture

The site of Mitsudera 1 is introduced in the module on ‘Life and Death in a Changing Society’ Part 1 Figures 5 and 6. The control of water appears to be an important aspect of ritual activity. A kind of water-controlling apparatus was found inside the remains of one of the buildings, at the western end of the enclosure, close to the large post-built building thought to be the residence of the chief. Water was brought into the enclosure through a raised wooden conduit over the 30-metre wide moat, into a stone-flagged container. A large roofed well stood close to the chief’s residence. All this suggests a great concern with the control of the water supply, which may relate to wider interest in control of the water used for irrigating paddy fields.


Fig. 10

Stone flagged water facility at Mitsudera 1, Gunma prefecture

The hexagonal shaped stone-flagged feature is 4 metres wide. The long oblong pit (60 x 20 cm) to the side is thought to be a wooden cistern. Around this facility, some pits and shallow ditches were found. This water apparatus was shielded by a building. Another hexagonal shape stone-flagged feature (11 metres wide) was found 20 metres from the first. This had no building nearby. Some people think that  this difference implies that there were two kinds of ceremony for different purposes; one for a secret cult at the first, while the other is for a more public ceremony.


Fig. 11

Sword-shaped wooden artefacts from Mitsudera 1, Gunma prefecture

A variety of ritual objects were found inside the first stone-flagged facility. These included dishes of Sue ware, stone miniatures of a mirror, sword and axe. Sword-shaped wooden artefacts and kernels of peaches were found in the moat. Comma-shaped stone beads with several smaller curved beads attached (komochi-magatama) were found in the second facility. (More details of Mitsudera can be found in the module on The Image of Rice.)


Fig. 12

A ritual water feature at Nango-Ohigashi, Nara prefecture

The water apparatus … metres away’ with: ‘The remains of a small building were discovered close to a small man-made pond at Nango-Ohigashi. This facility was probably used during rituals involving the purification of water. The site, built in the Middle Kofun period (AD 400-500) in the foothills of the nearby mountains, was a considerable distance from any residential areas. Water flowed from a small stone-paved pond through a wooden conduit to be stored in the square wooden cistern. Both conduit and cistern were made from the same kind of split timbers.


Fig. 13

Reconstruction of a 5th century AD water ritual at Nango-Ohigashi, Nara prefecture

The remains at Nango-Ohigashi included two rows of wooden posts on either side of the wooden water conduit and cistern, enclosed by traces of a wooden fence. This is reconstructed as a roofed structure as shown in this reconstruction. The fence may have demarcated a sacred area that was difficult to see into from outside, within which ritual ceremonies, perhaps including musical instruments of the sort sometimes depicted by haniwa tomb figures..


Fig. 14

Stone artefacts from Nango-Ohigashi, Nara prefecture

A variety of ritual objects were found. Dishes of Sue ware, comma-shaped stone beads, stone miniatures of a mirror and sword, sword-shaped wooden artefacts, and kernels of peaches. Some archaeologists think that the many pieces of partly burnt wooden sticks were used for lighting the rituals held here at night.


Fig. 15

Haniwa of water apparatus from Takarazuka No.1 kofun, Mie prefecture

The keyhole-shaped Takarazuka No. 1 mounded tomb is the  largest burial mound in the Ise region, the area famous for the Ise Grand Shrine, the most important centre of the Shinto religion. A haniwa of a ritual water facility was found where the front and rear of the keyhole-shaped mound meet. The haniwa consisted of three parts: an enclosing fence or wall, a building, and the water facility itself, which comprised the floor of the building, made up of a water tank and conduit. This haniwa represents a ritual water facility similar to that found at Nango-Ohigashi.


Fig. 16

The sacred island of Okinoshima

The sacred island of Okinoshima lies off the coast of northern Kyushu, in the Genkai Sea. The island is thought to be home to the Munakata deities, female goddesses who controlled the straits that separated Kyushu from Tsushima and Korea, and the island itself, just one kilometre long, is regarded as divine. From the 4th to 9th centuries AD a variety of objects were deposited around the huge rock formations on the southern side of the island, as offerings to the deities. Archaeological excavations  have produced over 120,000 objects, 80,000 of which have been designated as National Treasures. The island and associated sites in the Munakata region of northern Kyushu, are currently on Japan’s tentative list for designation at UNESCO World Heritage.


Fig. 17

Offerings at the base of a rock on the sacred island of Okinoshima

Ritual offerings were made to the Munakata deities on Okinoshima from the 4th to the 10th centuries. Over time, the location of the offerings changed. In the early 5th century offerings were placed on the surface of huge rocks, and later they were placed at the base of the rocks and in more open areas. These offerings were made by the central government to propitiate the deities to try and secure safe crossings over the sea. Offerings included large numbers of ceramics, including grey Sue stonewares and other ceramics, as well as exotic objects from overseas.


Fig. 18

A miniature loom from Okinoshima

The Munakata deities are associated with weaving. The weaving of silk was an important technology, and we know that silk was woven in Japan from the Yayoi period (500 BC – AD 250). This miniature loom, made of gilt bronze, was one of many exceptional objects offered to the Munakata deities.


Fig. 19

Dragonhead ornaments from Okinoshima

These two gilt dragonhead ornaments were deposited as offerings at Okinoshima.They were probably made in China and originally formed part of a banner frame. They were deposited during the Nara or Heian periods (8th-10th centuries AD). Other artefacts that were offered to the deities included bronze mirrors, iron weapons, greenstone bracelets and other stone beads, gilt horse trappings, and miniature models of musical instruments, boats, people and animals.


Key question

  • What kind of rituals were performed during the Kofun period?

Secondary questions

  • What were the meanings of water rituals in the Kofun period?
  • Why did people hold significant ritual ceremonies in remote areas away from where they lived?