Hunters of the Lost Tomb

After reading about Kashima's ancient burial mounds in the Moody Minstrel's blog post Mounds of Mystery, I was interested in taking a look for myself. Burial mounds, or Kofun as they are called in Japanese, were built in the hundreds between the early 3rd century to the early 7th, so that time is often referred to as the "Kofun Period".

Moody's post had given a few clues as to its where abouts - a picture of the intersection along a main road, and the fact that it was somewhere along Moody's route to work. I don't know what his route is exactly, but the possibilities are limited (unless he likes taking meandering hillside roads with lots of S turns to wring out his BLUE Rav 4 (and any Moodiness) going to and from work. We had one false start two weeks ago based on a guess and a wrong turn, which took us past the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden (a famous swordsman who lived from 1490 to 1571). A direct inquiry to Moody went unanswered, so I assumed he was either too busy (most likely) or perhaps wished the "mounds of mystery" to remain just that. Some further research by K found the site on a website map and we went to have a look.

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A large new sign at the site describes the mounds and has this relief map of them. The main mound is about 75 meters (246 feet) long and 7.5 meters high. There are three mounds at this site (two small round ones are near the head of the large one), but the entire neighborhood is apparently dotted with many more which are not marked. We drove around and saw a few "possibles".

This one is called Meotozuka Kofun - husband and wife burial mound - and dates to the early 6th century CE. The leader of a local clan and his wife are interred there.

Kofun come in many shapes but most are "keyhole" shapes like this one. Of course, there weren't any keyholes in Japan at that time, that is simply modern label for them and why they took that shape is not known. Some had motes around them. Inside the round end of many mounds is a stone burial chamber. The more elaborate ones even have plastered walls with paintings on them and star charts on the ceiling. They also contain sacred items, such as iron swords and clay figures. I don't know if this one has been opened.

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Here's K at the large end of the Kofun.

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This shows one of the smaller, circular mounds in the background. Their function here is not known.

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This is looking at the burial portion, or head, from the top-middle section. At this point there was often an altar on large mounds. Sometimes this section contains a second tomb chamber as well.

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In addition to the nice new signage, the city has built a grass parking area with high tech toilets. They are the latest in composting toilet technology made by a Japanese firm called Bio-lux. They use a matrix of saw dust and completely break down waste and turn it into compost. They aren't cheap, but require very little maintenance and are very friendly to the environment.

Forgive me if I go on a bit about the toilets here. I know it's a somewhat taboo or uncomfortable subject (for some reason the British seem to find the very mention of "the loo" hilarious), but in a world with 6.5 billion people and counting, sewage is a serious health and environmental problem, and conventional treatment systems use up drinking water, deprive the land of nutrients, and often pollute rivers.

These new composting toilets use no water, don't pollute, are quite sanitary and don't have a bad odor. Bio-lux has received awards for their design from forestry to tourist groups and a Medal of Appreciation from the Philippines Minister of Environment. Composting toilets are going to be a factor in reducing water waste and pollution in the world. At a 2003 meeting in Kyoto, scientists from around the world told the United Nations to re-think their plan of hooking up 1 billion people to sewer systems by 2015 and use composting toilets instead, citing the reasons given above.

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"Honey bucket" wagon.

Ironically, in Japan, "night soil" used to be collected and used as compost, with the collection company paying for it! It was valuable for its nutrients. In fact tenants and landlords sometimes got into arguments over who owned it. This is one reason why 200 years ago Edo (old Tokyo) was one of the cleanest cities in the world. The practice continued in many places until the late 1950's. I remember my uncle, who was a colonel in the USAF, telling me that they had to use a "honey bucket" when he was stationed in Japan with his family in the 50's. It was put out by the street for collection each morning. Of course, that practice was not without health risks, and these days such compost would not be used on food crops.

Anyway, I was impressed with Kashima City's vision in choosing this modern system for the new park. Perhaps being across the street from a large public water treatment plant had something to do with the choice.

Back to the Kofun. One of the things often found in Kofun burial chambers are clay figures called a "haniwa" ("clay cylinder"). Originally that is all they were, a cylinder of clay. They evolved into figures of people and horses.

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A haniwa from an northern Ibaraki kofun. Ibaraki Prefectural History Museum, Mito City.

Haniwa were placed at the entrance to the tomb, facing outward, and often they were placed outside as well on top of the mound and around its base. In the Japanese Journal of History, it says "After Emperor Suinin (the eleventh emperor of Japan) witnessed the horrible sight of the Emperor's entourage being buried alive in the areas around the Emperor's tomb, he had this practice stopped and had clay images of people and horses instead lined up in the tomb, and this became the beginning of the practice of using clay figures, or "haniwa". More modern interpretations say they may have been used simply to shore up the earth works, or to indicate the importance of the person interred there and indicate a succession of power to the new ruler.

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Ring-pomelled long sword with a pair of dragons from Funazuka Kofun, Ibaraki. Ibaraki Prefectural History Museum, Mito City. Swords then were made of iron, so rusted away.

As with other ancient cultures, it is the contents of these tombs which have been most valuable in allowing us to know what was going in Japan over 1500 years ago. The technology of the time, religion, government, scientific knowledge, and so on are all revealed by the artifacts so preserved.

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Pandabonium wondering if you plant an almond tree on top of a Kofun, would it turn from a Mounds into an Almond Joy? After all, Peter Paul Almond Joy has almonds, Mounds don't.

Sorry about that. Sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don't. Anyway, we found the "lost" tomb and satisfied our curiosity, learning a bit more about history in the process. Next time we head over to Itako City, we'll have to check out their complex of Kofun.


Last Saturday was busy with a return to Hawaiian restaurant 'Oli'oli for lunch, and a concert by the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra. There's an event in Suva, Fiji too, so I have plenty to post this week.


Don Snabulus said...

I saw Moody's original post. Congrats on your sleuthing and the new and interesting details on this place. The composting toilets are definitely a great idea.

By the way, Mike & Ike liked your Almond Joy joke.

ladybug said...

Yea, what Snabby said....

We used a sawdust toilet at Mary Jane's Farm in Idaho - it's the first pit toilet that didn't stink either.

Sleuthing stuff like that is fun, I like doing it for Native American sites here...but it's hard to do, as most traces of anything have been erased.

Pandabonium said...

Snabby -Mike and Ike? - like fruit flavored candy?

Ladybug - those toilets make a lot of sense, particularly if the alternative is a septic system, both in terms of environment and cost.

I always enjoy seeing "old stuff". I like to visit old cemeteries even - interesting what you can learn from them.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Oops...sorry I didn't get back to you on that. I had actually intended on telling you about it when I stopped by to deliver the concert tickets (if not actually take you there), but I completely forgot...and was in a bit of a hurry anyway.

Pandabonium said...

No worries, Moody. I had meant to ask you about it when you came by but forgot. We don't usually go up that road, we go up 18. Anyway, it was cool to see and I'm glad you wrote that post about it.

QUASAR9 said...

Strange, but burial mounds seem to transcend civilizations and cultures across the globe.
Could it be that darwinists have missed point by looking for the missing link. Could earth not have been 'widely' populated by a common race, which only somehow later became disparate & diverse.

After all there is always much debate about synchronicity of events, an/or transmigration of knowledge like pyramid building.

But whereas pyramid building would have been limited or determined by the ability of vast numbers of labourers (or slaves) and vast resources ... mound building was common to even small villages and tribes. After all even modern day cemeteries are common to every small village or town, and exist even in wards or districts of larger cities. And even the native americans had their sacred burial grounds, befor european settlers built their churches and graveyards

How or why or when humans started burying their dead and caring for the sick has been marked as one of the crucial steps which separate us from animals. Burial mounds are the next step in honouring the dead

I'm always somewhat awestruck by the ancient chinese custom of honouring their ancestors, as if they were living entities (still watching over the community and able to influence events) simply not in this dimension or physical plane.

Of course a custom wildly discredited by natural disaster or wars. But then again when have armies or scientists ever been able to 'guarantee' thesafety of individuals or even kings.

Perhaps Son of Bush would have been one of the honoured dead if he'd led the invasion of Iraq, but it is easy to be mach and brace sitting in the comfort of the Whitehouse or his Texas Ranch.

Glory & Honourseekers no longer required to take the risk, simply sacrificing the sons (and daughters) of others, and relying on the numerical advantage and technological superiority.

Don Snabulus said...

PB, Yep the fruity candy. I was thinking back to theater days when I gazed over all of the sweet candy. Now it makes me feel yucky to eat candy. I stick with booze.

Pandabonium said...

Quasar9 - earth was and is populated by a common species - homo sapiens sapiens. All of the differences in the races only occurred relatively recently. Many of things common around the world - pyramids, mounds, arrows, etc. are natural, simple ways of doing things. The bigger stone pyramids are technically difficult, but probably did not require the numbers of people we used to imagine. Heyerdahl made some interesting points regarding possible contact from Egypt to the Americas with the possible transfer of pyramid building knowledge.

As you say, taking care of the ill and dead is an early sign of humanity. The much maligned Neanderthals were apparently did this, as evidenced by skeletons which have healed broken limbs, and flowers found in graves.

I read somewhere that Japan learned mound building from China and Korea. I agree that the Chinese way of thinking about their ancestors as watching over them from what you and I might call another dimension is interesting.

Fascinating stuff to ponder. Part of the universal quest to learn who we are.

Snabby - candy makes makes me quesy too - just the thought. And as for the latter, I have given up that as well as of June 1st. (sigh)

The Moody Minstrel said...

I still enjoy candy and booze (rub rub rub rub) though not in the quantities I used to. I never really liked really sugary candy, either. I'm mainly a chocolate fiend.

It is said that the overwhelming majority of core Japanese traditions were brought to Japan either from Korea or from China via Korea. It is also said by many anthropologists (to much chagrin among more rightist locals here) that the Yamato (i.e. Japanese) ethnic group probably migrated from Korea in the first place. The oldest known people in Japan, the Jomon Japanese, were completely different, most likely Polynesian. The later Yayoi, the ancestors of the Yamato, bore physical and cultural resemblance to certain Korean ethnic groups.

Burial mounds may have been an imported Chinese or Korean tradition, but Japan was still culturally distinct during the Kofun Era. During the Asuka Era (6th to early 8th centuries) the Yamato became more or less Sinified (i.e. they embraced Chinese culture, religion, and writing). It wasn't until the Heian Era (late 8th to 11th century) that a true "Japanese" culture came about once again.

Pandabonium said...

Moody - hmmm - chocolate liquer?

Thanks for the added history. It is also interesting to note that women played an important role during the Kofun period, including a number of empresses.

Martin J Frid said...

Fascinating post and once again you manage to make ancient history come alive. Reminds me of the three huge burial hills near Uppsala in Sweden, which are easy to see, although noone today remembers what the vikings actually did or hid there.

Swinebread said...

I can’t decide if the mounds or the toilet are more interesting… OK it’s the mounds but you’re right it’s important.

Pandabonium said...

Swinebread - there is a very funny book titled "Motel of the Mysteries", in which an archaeologist of the year 4022 unearths a motel room which was buried in some great catastrophe of 1985 and interprets it to be a sacred tomb - human remains are on a "ceremonial bed facing an altar that appeared to be a means of communicating with the Gods (TV)". Then the inner chamber (bath room) is opened and remains are also found in the bath tub - the tub a sarcophagus, the toilet a holy altar, and so on.

Perhaps this mound and toilets will be thought to be related in some future dig and take on new meaning. ;-)