History of Jomon Study

Collections of Morse
from The Shell Mounds of Omori

| Keiji Imamura |


Edward Sylvester Morse who was researching shellfish in America planned a research project for Brachiopoda in Japan, where they were abundant. He left San Francisco on May 29th, 1877 (10th year of Meiji) and arrived in Yokohama on June 18th. He took a train from Yokohama to Tokyo on June 20th, and from the window he saw layers of shell exposed on the left cliff of the railroad. The site was shortly after the train passed Omori Station, and he thought at once that it was an ancient shell mound.

Two months before his arrival in Japan, the University of Tokyo was established in April, 1877. When Morse came to Tokyo, he was unexpectedly invited to join members of faculty as a professor of biology and physiology, in the Science Department at the University of Tokyo. The position given from the University was very fortunate for his research of Brachiopoda, and it assured him an advantageous status and funds in order to carry out excavations at the shell mounds of Omori.

The excavations were done several times from September to November in 1877. There are no records of those details. However, judging from a record that the total sum of warranty paid to the landowner was fifty yen (equivalent to fifty dollars in those days), the scale of the excavations seems fairly large.

The materials found from the excavations were mainly pottery, stone tools, bone tools, and animal and human bones. They were displayed at the newly founded university museum in 1879. Those pottery vessels found at the site can be classified into Horinouchi Type, Kasori B Type, Angyo Type, and they range from the Late to the beginning of the Final Jomon in the current periodization?

The report on collected materials at Omori was published both in English and Japanese. The English edition, "The Shell Mounds of Omori," was issued in July, 1879 as Memoirs of the Science Department, University of Tokyo, Japan volume 1 part 1. The Japanese edition, "Omori Kaikyo Kobutsu-hen," was issued in December of the same year.

In Morse's report on his excavations, the illustrations of artifacts were drawn in the same reduced scale in order to show them as objectively as possible. For pottery vessels, the way of making and the trace of use are observed carefully. The uses were also estimated, and the number of vessels found were counted according to their different uses. These were all new attempts made at that time. However, those approaches and viewpoints did not take precedence in Japanese archaeology of that time. It was only a while after World War II that the importance of those approaches and viewpoints were recognized and used consciously. In his report, Morse mentioned that the cross section of tibias is flat, a currently well-known feature of Jomon bones. He also pointed out the existence of cannibalism in the Jomon period from crashed and charred bones. Besides all of those points he made, his analysis on his specialized field of shell was especially made in detail. Based on his observation of shells, he estimated the early date of the site and how the environment changed, and he mentioned the characteristics and the similarities of the shell mounds compared to others in the world. He also emphasized the importance of protection of the cultural properties, and lamented that many of precious cultural properties of Japan were being brought abroad. He had respect for them more than Japanese of that time.

Morse once left Japan soon after the publication of the report in English, and came back in 1882 to collect historic ceramics and folk crafts for half a year. Since 1880, he was the chief curator of the Peabody Museum in Massachusetts, and the earliest collection of folk artifacts by Morse is now very important for Japanese folklore.

Morse loved Japan and the University of Tokyo through his life. When he heard that the University Library had been ruined by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, he made a will to donate his entire collection of books. One can still find those books with his stamp on it in the University Library.
It was 1929 that a monument of "The Shell Mounds of Omori" was built at 6-choume, Oi, in Shinagawa-ku. In the next year, the other monument was built at another spot near Omori Station. The former one is where Morse actually excavated. Later, both places were designated as National Historic Sites, and all of the specimens stored in the Department of Anthropology and Prehistory, The University Museum, The University of Tokyo were designated as National Important Cultural Properties in 1975.

The excavation at the shell mounds of Omori was not only the beginning of the scientific archaeology and anthropology in Japan, but also it was one of the earliest excavations of the shell mounds in the world. It was fortuitous that Morse had experience of excavations of the shell mounds in Florida with J. Wyman, a pioneer of the field. The excavation at Omori was typical of early academic activities of the University of Tokyo. Morse did not carry out his research with documents alone, but rather picked research subjects outdoors and systematically observed and recorded the results. His approach was the real introduction of the method and spirit of modern science applicable to all academic fields.