Archaeological Research of
the Jomon Period in the 21st Century

| Keiji Imamura |


Reaching the mountain pass, a traveler stops and looks back from where he has come, then looks onward to where he is to go. We are also at the pass, from the second to the third millennium. I would like to look back upon the course of archaeological researches in Japan, and have a perspective on future researches.

It is not only a good time to consider on the past and future of the Jomon archaeology, but also a right occasion to think upon the course of mankind from the past to the future, comparing it with the Jomon period, in which nature and men were not separated.

The Past and the Present of Jomon Study

The Indigenous Japanese Archaeology and the Excavation at the Shell Mounds of Omori by Edward Morse

It has been said that the excavation at the shell mounds of Omori by Edward S. Morse in 1877 is the dawn of scientific archaeology and anthropology in Japan, and it was simultaneous with the birth of the University of Tokyo. The union is symbolized by publication of the report on the shell mounds as the very first volume of the Memoirs of Science Department, University of Tokyo.

There is no doubt that the excavation at Omori was the first to be done in scientific approach in Japan. However, the history of science is not fixed in the past and it should be continuously revised from new points of view. Therefore, I would like to question the role of the excavation@by@Morse in the progress of archaeology in Japan. The first point to state is the context between Morse's excavation and the increasing interests in collecting antiques in Japan before Morse. The second point is whether or not scientific archaeology was planted in Japan through his excavation.

Let's begin with the second point. Did scientific archaeology take root in Japan following the excavation? If so, the method of investigation at Omori is considered the origin of archaeology and anthropology in Japan as commonly thought. If not, and Morse's achievement was only an isolated precursor, how should we define its significance in Japanese archaeology? The excavation of shell mounds at Omori was conducted in the tenth year of the Meiji Era, and publication of its report was in the twelfth year. In the same year, another excavation of shell mounds was done at Okadaira in the Ibaraki Prefecture, by Isao Iijima and Chujiro Sasaki, two students of Morse. However, the scientific approach introduced by Morse was deserted after that. Iijima became one of the founders of zoology in Japan while Sasaki opened up entomology; neither continued the field of archaeology or anthropology. This unfortunate interruption was influenced from the divisional arrangement of academic fields at the university. Morse was invited to join as a professor of zoology at the University of Tokyo, while Shogoro Tsuboi, professor of anthropology came later to lead anthropological and archaeological studies, not only at the university, but also nation wide. Tsuboi, not a student of Morse, was rather hostile to Morse. Although there were very detailed descriptions of archaeological findings in Tsuboi's articles, it is difficult to know if he took a stance on objective analysis, gathering conclusions on what was observed, as Morse had done. Rather, the statements in Tsuboi's reports express ideas based more on imagination rather than analysis. His discussion seems more of a reminder of hobby-like antique research of Edo Era. When we think of the most popular research topic in the Meiji Era, "Who were the aborigines of Japan?" we have to confirm that the root of the intuitive imagination in Meiji archaeology lies in the antique study of the Edo Era. So, let us go back to the first point.

Until now, it is generally said that collection and research of antiques in the Edo Era was nothing more than interests of individuals. Certainly the beginning of archaeology in Japan has much to do with antique collection, and there was not a highly defined goal to find truth in it. However, isn't such a situation common for the beginning of sciences to generate from simple intellectual curiosity?

In Japan there appeared a remarkable figure, Hakuseki Arai, who recognized stone tools as manmade implements in the early 18th century, one of the world's earliest periods. The study on stone tools was taken over by several people such as Sekitei Kiuchi, who published "Unkonshi," a pictorial catalog of his findings at the end of the 18th century. Around the same time as Kiuchi, Sansei Tamura published "Aizu-sekifu" in which he stated, "always found with pottery fragments, stone tools must be manmade, and arrowheads were made of stones instead of iron as it had not been known." Thus he recognized the characteristics of stone tools through the relationship with the artifacts found together at sites, and said that "ancient villages were located on dry highlands. " These statements were very outstanding achievements made at that time. There is another misunderstanding on Morse's accomplishment in his excavation at Omori. It is thought that he only introduced what had already been established in Western anthropologic and prehistoric study of that time. As a matter of fact, his report on Omori was one of the pioneer works and was regarded as prominent research of shell mounds even in the West of that time. Thus, it seems too severe to conclude what Japanese pioneers had achieved remained at low level from a comparison with Morse's report. We should respect those who founded archaeology in Japan as much as we do Morse.

What connects the first and second points is the argument of Japanese aborigines. The doctrine was derived from the "Shukushin-theory" written by Hakuseki Arai, and it created Kiuchi's theory of Ezo. The theory was then expanded as the Ainu theory of Franz von Siebold and his son Heinrich. Later, the Ainu theory was inherited by Mitsutaro Shirai who rivaled with Shogoro Tsuboi's Korobokkuru theory. The Ainu theory came to the completion under Ryuzo Torii during Taisho Era. Considering that argument as the main stream of archaeology of that time, the research at the shell mounds of Omori was at an isolated position from the stream, and Morse himself was related with the argument. Morse's theory of pre-Ainu is seen as opposing Siebold's Ainu theory. (In his report, Morse stated that the people of Omori were preceded Ainu, but it does not mean that he thought all the Japanese aborigines were before Ainu.) Although Tsuboi had an antipathy toward Morse, he borrowed Morse's idea and presented his "Korobokkuru theory". Korobokkuru are legendary occupants of Hokkaido former to Ainu.

When we think of that process of development for Japanese archaeology and anthropology, we should pay close attention to the main course of interests in collecting antiques of the Edo Era, in which the origin of those studies lays in. It is obviously optimistic to say that a new scientific archaeology established in Japan by Morse's "Shell Mounds of Omori".

At the end of the Taisho Era, Ryuzo Torii completed his Ainu theory, in which he linked Jomon pottery with the Ainu people and Yayoi pottery with the Yamato people (historically main body of Japanese). The fanciful argument for the research of aborigines of Japan came to a major turning point after Torii's theory, and branched off into two different directions. One was to collect human remains and analyze the morphology of them in order to prove who were the aborigines of Japan. It has become the main method of anthropological research since then. The other is to establish relative dating of Jomon pottery whose method was originally hinted by concepts of paleontology such as stratigraphy, standard fossils and evolutionary sequence. Detailed chronology of prehistoric pottery was to be established upon its stylistic features. Then the chronology could be used as a tool to observe the changes in history. This method became fundamental for archaeology in Japan. The excavation at Kasori shell mounds, Chiba Prefecture in 1924 became the fixed point of anthropology and archaeology of Japan. Yoshikiyo Koganei conducted the excavation for collecting human remains while Sugao Yamanouchi, Ichiro Yahata, and Isamu Kono all of whom were to be leaders of the Jomon study, later participated in it with the aim of stratigraphical approach.

In this exhibition, aside from materials from Omori and Okadaira, human remains used for the investigation of the Jomon race and pottery serving as the standards for chronology by Sugao Yamanouchi are displayed.

Yamauchi divided the Jomon period into five phases, as well as developed subdivisions in each phase. He insisted that every cultural element should be put into temporal order on the chronology. Based on his chronological investigation, he concluded that Jomon culture proceeded Yayoi culture throughout Honshu, and criticized the opinion that the two different ethnic groups of Jomon and Yayoi existed long side by side.

Development of New Research Methods

There were no written records in the Jomon period. Therefore, material remains such as wastes from foods and implements left at their occupation areas must be used to understand their culture and life style. For instance, pollen trapped in strata of that time can give an important clue as to what the natural environment of the occupation areas was like in the Jomon period. In order to analyze the material remains beyond simple observation of shape or color with the naked eye, scientific method can be very beneficial. Certainly, scientific analysis of material remains was done by Morse, this researching approach was significantly developed in Japan only after World War II. It would now require more than a book's length just to introduce the summary of various methods, and here I would like to pick up only a few of those researches that had major contributions for Jomon study.

Before the use of the radiocarbon dating method, it was very difficult to know the absolute dates of remains from the Jomon period, and relative dating could only be applied. Since radiocarbon dating, absolute dates on all materials that contain carbon, such as plant remains, shellfish, bones, and so on can be determined, and so dates of occupations that did not have any direct cultural interactions came to be compared. There were, however, many prudent opinions as well as rejecters to the dating, since there were questions raised for its limit and accuracy, and the dating method was too decisive for several archaeologists to depend easily. With the invention of accelerator mass spectrometry, it became possible to date with much smaller quantity of materials. By comparing the data with yearly strata of lake-bottom sediment, it opened a way to correct the deviation of radiocarbon dating with the actual calendar year.

Other methods of dating have been applied for the researches of Jomon: fission-track, fluorine content, and thermoluminescence dating. A dating method called dendrochronology, which is based on tree rings, has been developed, and now it is possible to date from the present to the Yayoi period. It will be able to be applied for the Jomon period as well in near future.

Whether a group of people would be prosperous or decline was heavily dependent on how much food they could obtain with their skills and knowledge. In addition to microscopic analysis of food residue from archaeological sites, there have been surprising new methods developed for analysis of fatty acid and cholesterol, and for comprehending kinds of food eaten by analyzing carbon isotopes which were taken from human bones.

Even in the Jomon period, exchanging between communities was frequently done in order to acquire goods hard to make themselves. Scientific analyses prove the origins of materials used for stone and clay implements. The movement of those goods becomes a clue to understanding social relationships between communities.

Many kinds of methods - Analyses of pollen, insects, shell, foraminifer and all other plants and animals, and lake-bottom core - have been used and helped reconstruct the natural environment of the Quaternary.

For studying the human genetic code on the shapes of bones, mathematical analysis with use of the computer played a main role. Recently, DNA analysis has brought a revolutionary advance in researching human genetics. Since DNA came to be collectable from bones of an ancient time, the method is applied to the Jomon period, which is yielding important results.

A deluge of data and specialization in the research field

It is quite natural for academic researches to be progressively subdivided into sectional fields and specialized. Archaeology of Japan may be one of the most specialized fields. The number of rescue excavations done in one year before construction works is well over 10,000, and as a result, reports issued on those excavations are more than 3000 a year. The number is surely far more than one scholar can cope with. Newspaper articles of important archaeological discoveries in recent years are only a part of all the excavations. Thus, it is inevitable for archaeologists to limit their fields for maintaining their level at the forefront of research. As a result, it seems that there are two types of archaeologists. One is to research a specific field as precisely as possible, which includes the majority of archaeologists. The other is to research roughly for getting a whole picture of the Jomon period without investigating every small fact and finding. Several ethnologists without interest in details, as the latter type, began to explain Jomon culture.

A Prospect for 21st Century

Scientific Methods

As already mentioned, many contributions have been increasingly made in archaeology and anthropology from natural science during the latter half of the 20th century, and more contributions will be made in the 21st century. As an archaeologist and not a scientist, I cannot imagine what kinds of new scientific methods will be developed. But scientists put their hearts into creation of new unimaginable method, and we, archaeologists, look forward to those developments. Archaeologists deal with materials remains from the past, and they are related with geology, petrology, mineralogy, metallurgy, botany, zoology, meteorology, oceanography, nuclear physics, genetics, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. From that, it can be said that archaeology is an exceptional field for being related with all facets of natural sciences. It will be necessary for archaeology to cooperate and be comprehensive with these fields furthermore.

Electronic Management and Sharing of Data

At the fundamental level of archaeology, use of computers is expected to play an important role for communication, reference, classification, and storing of data in the 21st century.

One of characteristics archaeology holds is that it is the study of data. Certainly this is case for any other academic field, management of data is crucial in archaeology. By collecting numerous fragmental information which by itself seems meaningless such as what is found with what other things, and where they are found, a historical scene can be reconstructed.

As it has already been mentioned, recent Japanese archaeology is in a deluge of data. Archaeologists now have to spend many hours and make much huge efforts for very fundamental work before analysis, and that is to collect data. Each scholar has to limit one's research topics in order to keep up with the circumstance. It has been impossible to collect all of those incredible numbers of excavation reports at any university libraries, and it will become an unusual situation when there will be no rooms for keeping all those reports, even if one tries to.

To say collecting data might sound smart but what we are doing is to figure out ways to buy many report books or to make and collect copies of data and to find storing spaces. Perhaps the only way to solve the problem is to establish the environment in which all the archaeological data can be accessible with a computer on the desk. The established environment will also be useful for publishing reports much earlier than they are. It is necessary for archaeological data to contain enormous pictorial illustrations and figures, and it is still difficult to cope with all those data to be transmitted with current personal computers. However, realizing the rapid progress made in computer technology these days, it is certain that they will be suitable for executing the task in the near future. With more progress in computer technology, archaeologists will be liberated from the elementary task of collecting data, and it will be possible for them to concentrate on the critical thinking part. By reducing their tasks, they can devote more research to their specialized fields, and will also have enough time to look at other fields and the works of other archaeologists.

Joint Research

As much as excavations require cooperative work of each individual, joint researches are necessary for comprehensive projects. It is because archaeological research requires collecting enormous, broad data and analyzing them in detail in order to figure out what is behind the data and what can be said about them. To accomplish this goal, it is ideal that many scholars who are familiar with each region work together as a team. In the present situation, members of so-called joint research team gather and exchange data and what they have researched on occasions. Cooperation will have more efficiency when its form is shifted over to daily communication between the members through computer network system.

Micro and Macro inquiry

In any academic field, two different stances are demanded; one is subdivision and specialization of research, and the other is a broad view. In a recent study of the Jomon period, the latter stance is sacrificed for the former one, and I have stated that exchanging of data through computers would be a breakthrough for managing the two stances at the same time. For the latter stance, an international view is more important. What similarities and differences are there between Jomon and other cultures in each area of Asia such as North Eastern Russia, Korea, China, or South Eastern Asia? This stance will contribute in the understanding of basic elements of Jomon culture. Fortunately, development of archaeology in those regions has been remarkable in the last 30 years, and now comparative studies between Jomon and other regions can be carried out. Furthermore, even comparing and contrasting with the cultures in West Asia, Europe, and the American continent will be significant. It is most ideal for each scholar to see the progress of researches in other related fields as much as one's own. International cooperation is necessary as much as that among domestic fields. It is desired that the cooperation is practical and of a daily joint research rather than of individual, nominal, and festival-like cooperation in the past. Really hard to accomplish it, through the combination of micro and macro views could bring Jomon study into a true and modern field of humanity, worthy of its deep explorations.

Explanation Beyond Data

The necessity of cooperation with various related fields was stated above. But what is more important for Jomon archaeology is development with independence maintained. The target of the core of Jomon study should be going beyond material as is paradoxical for archaeology absolutely based on material record. Archaeologists need to think beyond the questions such as when and how their findings were made and how they were used. Archaeologists are now demanded to restore an intangible part such as social structure or how people adapted themselves to surrounding environments through findings which do not tell directly about it.

In the United States and Europe, during the last quarter of 20th century, it has been insisted that intangible parts of societies should be the real goal. That suggestion contained elevation of consciousness to problems. But on the other hand, it created the tendency to regard interpretation and abstract arguments more important than basic collection and analysis of data and trimmed time for basic activity. We have to question what concrete results were produced after many of those discussions?

The time has passed when only presenting a critical idea is enough to be rewarded praise. It is critical for archaeology to analyze material records carefully, and to provide historical scenes beyond what can be seen directly from the materials. For the progress in this area, insights of each individual archaeologist are still fundamental more than combination of data or cooperation with natural sciences.

For Understanding of Humankind

In our society today, Jomon is in a sort of boom. The expanding image of Jomon is the time when men and nature were coexistent, when no social ranks and wars existed, and people enjoyed their freedom. Those who were tired of feeling the oppressive atmosphere in modern society look back to the period as a Utopia where they could enjoy peaceful life, like camping in nature every day, freed from the city noise and restraints of modern life. In addition to the image the public already had, the boom of Jomon even grew increasingly by the discovery of Sannai-maruyama, "the capital of Jomon" with a "huge wooden shrine" symbolizing the existence of the "Jomon Civilization".

By looking at how mass media has treated archaeology in recent years, it seems as if the role of archaeology is to give a dream for people. It goes without saying that a new archaeological discovery on TV and newspapers full of gloomy topics is one of few news that gives a fresh surprise and invite people into temporal adventures into the romantic ancient world. However, archaeology will no longer be an academic field if "scholars" make irresponsible exaggerations more than the news reporters do, in competing overstatements.

Jomon is a long period, which comprised eighty percent of the explored time span with almost the same climate condition as today. It was a time when people were like a part of nature rather than when people and nature coexisted. In considering man's future, the natural environment must be one of the biggest problems we have to face. To understand the relationship between men and nature, the detailed data obtained from the long duration of the Jomon period must give us an important clue. The relationship is out there for us to analyze with circumspection, and it should not be beautified from beginning. There were times when the rich nature provided stable blessings to people in Jomon, but there were severe trials upon them as well. Men did not always harmonized with nature but confronted it at some points. Series of creative ideas of men living in the Jomon period were produced as they encountered changes of natural environments, and the results are all before us as the history of Jomon. We should not look for a moment of comfort in Jomon, but a hint for planning our future through knowledge of real men's past.