The Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute showed off the artifact, part of a "sorin" decorative fixture that is placed atop a pagoda, on July 8.
In this case, it would have been the tip of a pagoda called "Kitayama Daito" that was constructed within the grounds of the famed Kinkakuji temple in the city's Kita Ward at the order of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the third shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate.
However, in 1416, shortly before it was completed, the pagoda burned to the ground after lightning struck. Other than speculation it was modeled after a seven-tiered pagoda at another temple, little is known.
This is the first such fragment to be uncovered, and researchers said it sheds light on what the structure looked like.
Excavation work was carried out between April and July 2015 in line with the rebuilding of retail shops on the west side of the Kinkakuji parking lot. That led to the discovery of the artifact from a trench built during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573).
Three fragments that appeared to have broken off from a circular object were among the items found.
The largest piece measures 24.6 centimeters by 37.4 cm and is 1.5 cm thick. It weighs 8.2 kilograms.
It is made of copper with gold plating.
Using the fragment to reconstruct the sorin that was placed on top of the pagoda led scholars to speculate the sorin had a diameter of 2.4 meters, meaning that it was likely from a huge structure. That pointed to the likelihood of it having come from the Kitayama Daito.
According to Yoshiyuki Tomishima, an associate professor of architectural history at Kyoto University, the sorin atop Toji temple also in Kyoto had a maximum diameter of 1.6 meters. At 56 meters high, the five-tiered Toji pagoda is the tallest existing wooden pagoda in Japan.
In 1399, construction of a seven-tiered pagoda on the east side of Shokokuji temple in Kyoto's Kamigyo Ward was completed following an order from Yoshimitsu. According to historical records, that pagoda had a height of about 110 meters, but it also burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.
Construction of the large pagoda at Kitayama began in 1404.
After the Kitayama Daito was destroyed, another effort was made to reconstruct a seven-tiered pagoda at Shokokuji, but in 1470 it too was destroyed by lightning.
Yoshiaki Maeda, the deputy director of the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute, said, "The Kitayama Daito was believed to have been a huge pagoda equal to the seven-tiered pagoda at Shokokuji. It was twice as tall as the five-tiered pagoda at Toji and there is the possibility it was the tallest Buddhist pagoda ever built in Japan."
Kubo, Tomoyoshi. 2016. “Artifact may be from long-lost pagoda, tallest ever built”. Asahi Shimbun. Posted: July 9, 2016. Available online: http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201607090039.html