Earliest Villages & Cemeteries

Some of the earliest village communities in the world were constructed in the Jomon period, marking a revolution in human history, a revolution that Japanese archaeologists describe as the ‘sedentary’ revolution. The term ‘ sedentary’ is used by archaeologists and anthropologists to describe societies that base themselves in one location all year around, and is used in contrast to the term ‘mobile societies’, which travel from place to place as part of their annual round of activities. Typical mobile societies include pastoralists who move with their flocks and herds from winter to summer pastures, and small-scale hunter-gatherers, who move from one place to another to make the most of seasonally available foodstuffs in different parts of their territories. In European prehistory there is a long-standing tendency to associate the appearance of sedentary communities with the advent of farming and the spread of what is known as the Neolithic (or New Stone Age). In the Japanese archipelago, settled villages are built thousands of years before the adoption of rice farming in the islands. Whether associated with farming or not, the establishment of such settlements represented a major change in the structure of the landscape, and a new phase of human interaction with, and impact upon, the environment.

In this module, we explore two aspects of this sedentary revolution: the nature of the Jomon settlements; and how the inhabitants of these new village settlements buried their dead. We will consider how the excavated remains of these prehistoric settlement plans and cemeteries can be interpreted to reveal about the nature of Jomon society.

Part 1: Excavated Jomon settlements

Excavations in Japan are often on a large scale and whole settlements have sometimes been excavated. These can reveal a lot about the way of life of people, their attitudes and their society. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How can we understand social organisation from settlements?

Fig. 01 – The reconstructed site of Sannai Maruyama, Aomori prefecture

1: The reconstructed site of Sannai-maruyama in Aomori prefecture

Sannai Maruyama is the largest Jomon settlement yet discovered. Occupied for nearly 2000 years in the Early and Middle Jomon period (c. 5900-3900 years ago), the site was the centre an extensive exchange network that brought greenstones from central Honshu, 500 kilometres south, and obsidian from Hokkaido. Parts of the site today have been reconstructed as a historical park, and visitors can see for themselves reconstructions of some of the long houses, and a large six-pillared tower-like structure. Several hundred houses were discovered, including a number of very large ‘long-houses’, which probably housed several families, perhaps during the long winter months, large numbers of adult burials arranged in a linear fashion strung out along a possible ‘ceremonial’ path, and many burial urns for chidren, scattered around the residential areas. A waterlogged midden area provided a lot of evidence foe environmental conditions at the time the site was occupied.

Fig. 02 – The excavations at Sannai Maruyama, Aomori prefecture

2: The excavations at Sannai-maruyama in Aomori prefecture

In the early 1990s the Aomori government decided to build a new baseball stadium, in the southern suburbs of the urban area of the city of Aomori, on rising ground towards the rear of the Aomori plain.  This area had long been noted for its archaeological remains, early accounts of ancient pottery being discovered dating back to the 1700s. As is normal in Japan, archaeological investigation preceded the development, but it was only once the foundations for the new baseball stadium had already been constructed that the true scale and significance of the site became apparent. Construction was halted and the baseball stadium relocated. Over 500 pit-buildings from the Early and Middle Jomon periods (c. 5000-3000 BC) were discovered, along with many storage pits, burials, buildings with raised floors (possible storage structures) and midden areas. Materials for artefacts included greenstones and obsidian from central Honshu, hundreds of kilometres to the south. The local government preserved the site as a historical park, reconstructing a number of buildings and constructing a new museum. The site is now one of 19 Jomon sites in northern Japan being put forward for inscription as UNESCO World Heritage.

Fig. 03 – An excavated ritual structure at Sannai Maruyama, Aomori prefecture

3: An enigmatic six-pillared structure from Sannai Maruyama

To the north of the excavated area, the remains the remarkably preserved bases of six huge chestnut pillars were discovered, each over a metre in diameter, set in large post-pits (see Feature 5 in Figures 01, 02 and 03). Archaeologists and architectural historians have suggested a number of possible ways of reconstructing this feature, today rebuilt as a kind of tower looking out across the Tsugaru Straits towards Hokkaido. One intriguing interpretation, proposed by archaeologist Kobayashi Tatsuo, is that this tower was related to ceremonies associated with the seasonal movements of celestial bodies, in particular the sun.  Drawing on ideas developed in the field of archaeo-astronomy, Kobayashi suggests that the plan of the pillars is aligned on the setting of the sun at midwinter.

Fig. 04 – Burial pits at Sannai Maruyama, Aomori prefecture

4: Burial pits and other ceremonial features at Sannai Maruyama

Many pit houses have oval or circular shape, and are around 3 to 4 metres long (Feature 1 on Figures 01 and 02). The largest pit house is 32 metres long (Feature 2 on Figures 01 and 02).

About 100 post-built structures that may have been for storing food were discovered in the centre of stadium area (Feature 3 in Figures 01 and 02).

There were two rows of oval burial pits including several hundred burials on both sides of a 420 metre-long earthen pathway from the stadium area to the eastern end of the site (Feature 4-1 in Figures 01 and 02). Another burial row was found from the south of stadium area to south-east (Feature 4-2 in Figure 01 and Figure 04). Some pit burials have circular a stone arrangement around the top. There are also approximately 800 upright buried jars, which were thought to be burials for babies or infants.

There are also north and south embankments in the stadium area 2 metres high with deposits of soil, charcoal, pottery, stone tools, in use for about 800 years (Feature 6-1 and 6-2 in Figures 01 and 02). Jadeite pendants and over 2,000 dogu clay figurines indicate that these earthen mounds were used for ritual activities.

Fig. 05 – Graph showing changes in the numbers of houses at Sannai Maruyama from one pottery phase to another. This graph demonstrates that the occupation of the site was sometimes more intense (e.g. 80 buildings in one phase), and sometimes less intense (5 buildings or less in one phase). Each pottery phase is named after a particular style. The Ento (which roughly means ‘cylinder-shape’) style pottery was a very long-lived style, and pottery of this style is found across much of northern Honshu during the Early and Middle Jomon. The Ento style is itself divided into substyles. ‘Lower’ and ‘Upper’ are earlier and later, lower and upper referring to their relationship in the stratigraphy on sites. These Lower and Upper substyles are even further subdivided, into ‘a’ (earliest), ‘b’ (next earliest’) etc.

5: Changes in the number of houses occupied at any one time at Sannai Maruyama

Sannai Maruyama was occupied for nearly 2000 years. The people who lived at the settlement made huge quantities of pottery, much of which was eventually deposited in the deep ‘pottery middens’ found at the site. The shape and decoration of the pottery changed over time, and these changes allow archaeologists to identify a series of pottery ‘phases’. Archaeologists use radiocarbon dating to date these phases, and use this information to suggest how many houses were occupied during each pottery phase. 

Fig. 06 – Excavation of Tanabatake settlement, Nagano prefecture

6: Excavation of Tanabatake settlement in Nagano prefecture

The site of Tanabatake is located on the southwestern flanks of the great volcanic massif of Yatsugadake in Nagano prefecture in central Honshu. This village was occupied for about 1000 years, for the whole of the Middle Jomon period (c. 3500 – 2500 BC). During the excavation of the site, necessitated by remodelling the agricultural fields in the area, the remains of 146 pit dwellings were investigated.  During the Middle Jomon, this area was one of the most densely occupied landscapes in Japan, with villages every few kilometres. One reason for the popularity of this region was its proximity to the major obsidian resources high on the volcanic massif.  Stockpiles of obsidian were found in some of the houses. The area was also on the trade route linking the Kanto plains on the Pacific side of the archipelago, with the greenstone-producing areas on the Sea of Japan coast. One of the most famous ceramic figures (dogu) from the whole Jomon period was found in a pit at the centre of the settlement, perhaps carefully placed there as a ‘foundation’ deposit for the community (see ‘The mystery of the dogu figurines’ Figure 01).

Fig. 07 – Plan of Tanabatake settlement, Nagano prefecture

7: Plan of Tanabatake settlement in Nagano prefecture

There are two circular zones of settlement, a north village and a south village. The pit houses in the south can be divided into two major segments, an eastern and a western group

There are no clearly identified features for storage. Some scattered pits around pit dwellings might be used as storage pits, but  it is possible to use the attic space of pit houses for this.

There were 116 Middle Jomon pits. These may be burial pits since jadeite pendants, jars, and stone knives were discovered at the bottom of them. These would have been grave goods. At the south village, the east and west segments of the pits seem to face each other across the central plaza.

14 rectangular post-built structures were found around the circumference of the central plaza. There were quite a few artefacts, but buildings that have a different structure from pit dwellings are thought to be facilities for ritual. The dogu clay figurine, ‘Jomon venus’, was found almost complete in No.500 small pit in the central open area of south village.

Fig. 08 – Obsidian arrowheads and flakes from the Tanabatake settlement, Nagano prefecture

8: Obsidian arrowheads and flakes from Tanabatake settlement in Nagano prefecture

There are over 10,000 obsidian tools, pebbles and flakes, weighing approximately 110 kg from the site. Arrowheads usually weigh only 0.5g, so that 110 kg of obsidian is equal to 220,000 arrow heads. This trial calculation indicates that the amount of stockpiled obsidian at Tanabatake is beyond that needed for self-consumption and is for trading. This site is located 10 km away from a good obsidian source in Mt. Kirigamine.

Fig. 09 – Arrangements of wooden posts survived at Aota, clearly showing how buildings were constructed at this 3000-year old settlement next to a river.

9: Excavation at Aota in Niigata prefecture

The Niigata plain is the largest coastal plan in Japan, and now produces a high proportion of Japan’s rice. The construction of a new expressway from north to south across the plain led to the excavation of an exceptionally well-preserved Final Jomon (c. 1000-300 BC) settlement that was buried some five metres beneath the current ground surface.  The site was waterlogged, sealed in by flood deposits relating to earlier courses of branches of the Shinano River. In waterlogged conditions such as this, the normal processes of decay do not take place, and organic materials, which are not usually found from prehistoric sites, are preserved. At Aota, wooden (chestnut) posts and wattle wall panels from buildings and other organic materials are well preserved, providing a wonderful glimpse of how life was in this riverine landscape in prehistory.

Fig. 10 – How the 3000-year old settlement at Aota may have looked

10: Reconstruction of the riverside settlement at Aota, Niigata prefecture

Archaeologists identified two phases of occupation at Aota, possibly separated by flood layers. Analysis of the annual growth rings (tree-rings) visible in the timbers suggested that in each phase the settlement comprised of eight or nine buildings aligned in a row, perhaps lined up along the riverside. As well as the buildings, about 70 storage pits were also discovered, some of them containing well-preserved nuts, which were an important foodstuff at this time. No adult burials were discovered, though a number of pottery jars were buried in the ground, probably originally containing the burials of infants. Infant mortality was much higher in prehistory than it is in the present. A few ceramic figures (dogu) and ceremonial implements made from stone are evidence for prehistoric rituals being performed at the site.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How can we understand social organisation from settlements?

Secondary questions

  • What can we tell about social organisation from the spatial arrangement of features, and the nature of the features and finds?
  • Why did Jomon people choose to live in villages?

Part 2: Distinctive burial customs

Jomon people used various forms of burial. Some were placed inside their settlements, while others were in separate cemeteries. Some had grave goods, while others did not. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How can we understand social organisation from cemeteries?

Fig. 11 – Plan of the Kusakari shell midden, Chiba prefecture. The larger circles show the locations of houses, and the smaller circles indicate pits, many of which were probably used for burial. Many burials were found with grave goods, including personal ornaments. Some of the house pits were also used for burial, once the house had been abandoned. The numbers refer to the ‘feature number’ given to each house or pit by the archaeologists in the course of excavation.

11: Plan of the Kusakari shell midden, Chiba prefecture

Several rescue excavations of a complete terrace of approximately 260,000 square metres revealed a whole circular settlement 130 metres long and 80 metres wide. The outer circular ring has approximately 300 pit dwellings dating to the Middle Jomon (c. 2500-1500 BC), and at least 21 houses were reused for burials. Over 1,000 pits found outside of the central plaza are thought to be storage pits, and some are also reused for burials.

Fig. 12 – Plan of a house pit at the Kusakari shell midden, Chiba prefecture. A series of burials were found in the floor. ‘M’ stands for ‘male’. The small circles show where the posts supporting the roof originally stood.

12: Burials in a house at Kusakari shell midden, Chiba prefecture

Burial in an abandoned house is popular in the Tokyo bay area in the middle Jomon. Other good examples were found in shell middens at Ubayama and Kasori. An analysis of the size and shape of the teeth and the skulls of the skeletons was done for two burials at Kusakari and Ubayama. These showed the reuse of pit dwelling as a burial is associated with one particular family. However, both burials were added to the disused pit house sometime later than it was abandoned.

Fig. 13 – A group of burial enclosures at Kiusu, Chitose city, Hokkaido

13: One of the burial enclosures at Kiusu, Hokkaido

This a large burial enclosure, 37 metres in outer diameter. 220 people have been arranged to show the size and height of the inner and outer edges of the bank that surrounded the graves in the centre of the enclosure. A number of these circular burial enclosures, surrounded by low banks, are known in Hokkaido, dating to the Late Jomon (c. 1500-1000 BC). They are especially concentrated in Ishikari basin, south of Sapporo city.

Fig. 14 – Excavation of a group of burial enclosures at Bibi 4, Chitose city, Hokkaido

14: Excavation of a group of burial enclosures at Bibi 4, Hokkaido

A group of sites along the Misawa River was excavated during construction of New Chitose airport, and 16 burial enclosures in total were uncovered from the sites of Misawa 1, Bibi 4 and Bibi 5.

Fig. 15 – Excavation of a burial enclosure at Misawa 1, Chitose city, Hokkaido

15: Excavation of a burial enclosure at Misawa 1, Hokkaido

In some places, these burial enclosures are found in pairs, and three such pairs were investigated along the terraces of the Misawa River. The remains of skeletons of adult males and females, and children (whose sex could not be determined) were discovered.

Fig. 16 – Plan of grave goods at Misawa 1 burial enclosure, Chitose city, Hokkaido‘. Grave goods included pottery and beads (as in grave pit P-106), beads, stone tools and long stone bars (as in grave pit P-120), stone arrowheads (P-119) and stone axes (P-101).

16: Plan of grave goods at Misawa 1 burial enclosure, Hokkaido

One of the characteristics of this burial custom is the occurrence of grave goods. 70% of the burials in the JX03 at Misawa 1 enclosure had such goods. This is much higher than in other cemeteries in the Jomon period.

Fig. 17 – Grave goods in burial 103 at Misawa 1, Chitose city, Hokkaido, included polished stone axes and a stone bar with carved ends.

17: Analysing differences in grave goods at the burial enclosures

Archaeologists usually assume that objects discovered in graves were deliberately placed with the deceased. In the acidic soils of Japan, the bones of the deceased rapidly disappear, often only leaving these grave goods behind. At the burial enclosures at Misawa 1, grave goods were divided into three categories:

(a) objects thought to have been used in ceremonies or rituals, such as long stone bars, sometimes with elaborate decoration at each end, and lacquered objects, including pottery vessels and parts of wooden bows

(b) personal ornaments, such as beads made out of greenstone such as jadeite

(c) everyday tools and utensils, including pottery and stone tools, such as axes and arrowheads.

There seem to have been some patterning and differences in terms of who was buried with what. 16 burials were excavated at one of the enclosures Misawa 1. Three burials included grave goods in categories (a) and (c). Another three includes grave goods in categories (a) and (b). Five burials contained grave goods that were limited to category (c), and the remaining five had no grave goods at all.

At another of the Misawa 1 burial enclosures, the paired enclosure JX04, only just over a third (39%) of the 16 burials had any grave goods: one with category (b) and (c) grave goods, two with category (a) or (b) goods, and four with just category (c) goods. The remaining 11 had not grave goods at all. What did these different patterns mean?

Fig. 18 – Burial pit at Tanabatake from the western segment of the southern village with a greenstone bead as a personal ornament grave good.

18: A grave from the Middle Jomon village of Tanabatake, Nagano prefecture

At the Middle Jomon (2500-1500 BC) village of Tanabatake, about 20% of people were buried with grave goods, which included everyday utensils and personal ornaments. Five graves contained jadeite pendants, and three others had different kinds of ornaments as grave goods. Less than 10% of all the burials contained just everyday utensils.  Just as at Kusakari there was no concentration of burials with grave goods in any particular part of the cemetery. At Kusakari grave goods as personal ornaments took the form of clay earrings and shell bracelets, and in two cases people were buried with ornaments made of antler which would have been worn at the waist.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How can we understand social organisation from cemeteries?

Secondary questions

  • What do the arrangement of burials and the occurrence of grave goods tell us about the social organisation of the population?