AHRC CDA: The end of the mounded tombs: cultural and religious change in the Japanese archipelago in the later Kofun period, 5th-8th centuries AD

Project Details


This project will examine some specific aspects of the development of a mature state-level society in the Japanese archipelago and its relationships with other parts of continental East Asia through the lens of the Japanese archaeological collections at the British Museum.

The project will be undertaken as a collaborative PhD, based at the School of World Art and Museology at the University of East Anglia and working in conjunction with the Japanese Section, Department of Asia at the British Museum.

The project is timely as it will coincide with the second half of a major survey of the Kofun period holdings of the British Museum, being undertaken in partnership with a group of leading Kofun period archaeologists under the direction of Professor Ichinose Kazuo (Kyoto Tachibana University), and with the planning of an exhibition at the British Museum on haniwa and the Gowland collection.

The archaeology of the later Kofun period is central to any understanding of the development of society and culture in Japan in the centuries prior to construction of the first Chinese-style cities. The significance of the archaeology of the Kofun period in general, and of the material traces of religious belief, including burial practices, in particular, is recognised in the adoption of two Kofun period sites on the Japanese national list for inscription as World Cultural Heritage sites, the Mozu-Furuichi cluster of mounded tombs in Osaka, and the Okinoshima ritual site and associated shrines and tombs of the Munakata clan in Kyushu. The sixth to ninth centuries AD saw the spread of Buddhism in Japan, introduced from the Korean peninsula, and the development of a centralised state in the context of relatively weak government in China prior to the coming to power of the Tang dynasty in the early 7th century. The archaeology of the later Kofun period includes a number of particularly interesting material aspects, including: the first Buddhist temples in Japan and associated material culture; the coalescence of indigenous cult practices into an early form of Shinto; at least two traditions of decorated burial chambers, one indigenous and one influenced by continental prototypes (in Kyushu and the Kansai); the development of representational haniwa, including models of houses, a range of elite material culture, and people, as represented by examples in the British Museum collections; the development of a new range of military equipment, notably horse-trappings and iron armour and weapons; the exceptional preservation of settlements and landscapes beneath volcanic deposits resulting from the eruption of Mount Haruna in central Japan in the mid 6th century, creating the so-called 'Pompeii of Japan'.

During the Kofun period some of the largest funerary monuments of the ancient world were constructed in the Japanese archipelago. These great tombs have long been sites of controversy in regard to whose remains were interred within. Many were designated the final resting places of Imperial ancestors in the later years of the nineteenth century, just when Gowland was investigating the tombs. Subsequent to this designation, the tombs were no longer available for study by archaeologists, instead being managed by the Imperial Household Agency. In 2009, there was a slight change in this long-held policy, allowing ordinary archaeologists limited access to a very small number of sites for the first time in over a century.

This project will allow these great monuments and their associated research history to be reassessed, building on current Japanese research into Kofun archaeology.
Effective start/end date1/10/1230/09/15


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council