Pristine clay carving hints at ancient funerary rites


A boat-shaped clay carving has been unearthed from a fifth-century burial mound in Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture, the Matsuzaka Municipal Board of Education said Monday.

The board said the decorated clay object, which was found in almost perfect condition, is a find unprecedented among other clay carvings found in Japan’s ancient burial mounds.

Katsuhisa Takahashi, chief researcher at the Nara National Cultural Heritage Institute, said the carving is a clue to unraveling the funerary rituals of ancient people. He described the boat carving as elaborate and highly artistic.

The carving, which looks like a banana-shaped boat supported by a base consisting of two vertical columns, measures about 140 cm long, 25 cm wide at its broadest point, and 90 cm high, the board said. It is larger than any of the 30 or so other such carvings discovered in Japan.

The ends of the boat-like object are decorated with what appear to be fish fins, and open parasols seem to cover people of high standing from stem to stern.

The ship was excavated from the center of the 111-meter-long mound. Its bow was pointing toward Ise Bay to the east.

“It must have been a ship for dead people to make the journey to the afterworld,” said Kazuhiro Tatsumi, an archaeologist at Doshisha University’s archaeological museum. He noted the similarity to burial customs in ancient Egypt.

Archaeologists presume that the person who was buried in the mound, was the head of a powerful family that controlled local marine transportation. The mound has been designated by the state as a place of historic interest.