Sannai-Maruyama excavation illuminating Jomon life

by Tomoko Shibuya

Staff writerAOMORI — Men wearing only a shred of coarse fur hunt animals in the mountains while women and children gather shells and forage for nuts.This was the prevalent image of people of the Jomon Period, which lasted from about 12,000 to 2,300 years ago. But when the Aomori Prefectural Government began surveying a site for a suburban baseball stadium in 1992, this image was shattered.A few meters below the surface of the 5-hectare site, workers found countless relics 4,000 to 5,500 years old. They also found the ruins of a tall building, roads and wooden tools, making it the largest Jomon village ever discovered.When the prefecture canceled the stadium project and continued its exploration of the ruins, more findings from the Sannai-Maruyama site surprised archaeologists. Jomon relics including lacquerware, jade pendant heads, stone masks and pot chards, which filled some 40,000 cardboard boxes, were unearthed. More than 700 remains of dwellings and long rows of human graves, one measuring nearly 420 meters in length, also were found, said Yasuhiro Okada, chief of the Sannai-Maruyama Site Preservation Office.Some findings from the site shed new light on the still-mysterious life of the Jomon Period. Experts agree that the village thrived for the entire 1,500-year period, reversing previous assumptions that Jomon hunter-gatherers ran in nomadic tribes. The land was systematically divided into areas for dwellings, storage, burial and dumps. Okada pointed out that this revelation introduces the possibility that people then knew how to plan a village.The site also revealed that the Jomon people had more advanced skills than was previously believed, Okada said. In four of the six excavated holes, each measuring 2 meters across and 2 meters deep and lined up in two orderly rows, roots of burned chestnut trees were found.The research team concluded the trees served as pillars as tall as 15 meters. The team also found that the holes were tilted inward slightly, indicating that the six pillars must have supported a roof or top floor. Finds of cultivatable plant seeds, such as bottle gourd and burdock, and the recent genetic study on chestnuts revealed that the villagers may have engaged in farming, Okada said.Jade products, apparently from Niigata Prefecture or Hokkaido, and amber products, presumably from Iwate Prefecture, were also unearthed at the Sannai-Maruyama ruins. Experts said they are convinced the villagers traded with remote places.Although similar Jomon ruins have been unearthed in many other parts of Japan, the Sannai-Maruyama site is the only one that reveals the overall structure of a Jomon village, Okada stressed. “Discovery of the Sannai-Maruyama site creates the possibility that Japan could have been one of the origins of civilization,” said Tetsuro Morimoto, an expert on comparative civilization. “We might have to rethink our preconception that Japan imported most of its culture from the continent.”But Makoto Sahara, curator of the National Museum of Japanese History, said he thinks the recent craze over the Sannai-Maruyama site is misleading. “The intensive publicity gives the impression that the Jomon culture was fascinating and rich,” he said, adding that only the tribe of the Sannai-Maruyama period was affluent and only in relation to food gatherers of that period in that region.