Thursday, August 8, 2013

Japan’s ancient Kofun culture explored with new technology

Using powerful geographic information systems technology to accurately survey Japanese burial mounds or ‘Kofun’ built between the third to seventh centuries AD Professor Izumi Niiro an archaeologist at Okayama University in Japan, is exploring the’ topography’ of this culture from landscape, burial mound to artefact.

“I first became aware of geographic information systems during a sabbatical at Southampton University in 1991,” explains Professor Niiro. “I decided to experiment with this technology for archaeological surveying when I returned to Japan. It enables me to visualize and analyse many types of geographical information such as topographic details of maps.”

Initially Professor Niiro started by using IDRISI from Clark University, now however, he uses the powerful open source system software; GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System).

Professor Niiro confides that there are very few archaeologists in Japan, if any, who produce their own software programs to analyse geographic information.

Findings by Professor Niiro include visualization of a bronze mirror from the early Kofun Period, third century and he explains, “I wrote my own software to visualize the surface of the mirror based on 3D scan information, our results clearly show a triangular-rimmed mirror that is decorated with deities and beasts.”

Burial mounds

Japan has many Kofun sites as the distribution of typical ‘key-holed’ burial mounds in Okayama Prefecture shows. The largest site in Okayama and the fourth largest in Japan is the Tsukuriyama Kofun—the burial mound of the king of the ‘Kibi’ completed in the fifth century. The tomb consists of the main Tsukuriyama burial mound and six smaller structures to the south. The dimensions of the Tsukuriyama Kofun are: length-350m, key-hole diameter-200m, height-31 m, and front length-215m. “Our analysis shows that it was built using very precise procedures using Chinese ‘shaku‘ units of length,” says Professor Niiro. “One shaku is 232 mm.”

Effect of disasters

Recently, Professor Niiro is extending his research activities to the effect of disasters on culture and civilization. “Volcano eruptions have had tremendous effects on the environment and human culture,” says Professor Niiro.

“In particular the sixth century saw unprecedented changes in the environment. In Japan, the Emperor of the time ordered the storage of rice in northern Kyushu to assist people in Korea who were affected by disasters precipitated by global climate changes. Similar disastrous effects of climate changes occurred in Ireland.

“The recent massive earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku has led to the rise in ‘disaster archaeology’. The Kofun Period ended in 600 AD probably due to climate change. This led to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. Archaeologists still have a lot to do. “

Past Horizons. 2013. “Japan’s ancient Kofun culture explored with new technology”. Past Horizons. Posted: July 7, 2013. Available online:

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