Archaeologists in Japan’s Nara prefecture have unearthed the tomb of an ancient elite figure beneath what was once a mundane parking lot.
The excavation, which began in the spring of 2022 near the World Heritage site of Horyuji temple, has unveiled a wealth of artifacts, shedding light on a burial site dating back to the late sixth century.
Researchers from Nara University and the Ikaruga Municipal Board of Education have been working to unearth the secrets hidden beneath centuries of soil buildup in the stone burial chamber. Among the treasures found within the chamber are two iron swords, arrowheads, items associated with horse riding, exquisite amber jewelry, and clay pots.
The burial chamber itself measures approximately 3.8 meters (12.6 feet) in length, 1.6 meters (5.24 feet) in width, and 1 meter (3.2 feet) in height. It is believed to have been the final resting place for a person of great importance during ancient times.
Interestingly, the tomb’s stone ceiling was absent, leading archaeologists to speculate that these stones may have been repurposed in the construction of the nearby Horyuji temple, which was completed during the early seventh century.
Professor Naohiro Toyoshima, an archaeologist at Nara University and a member of the research team, explained, “It is possible the ceiling stones were removed for use in the construction of Horyuji temple and the Ikaruga palace, where Prince Shotoku, an influential political leader of the era, lived with his family.”
“At that point, the stone chamber could have been buried along with all those items,” he told the Asahi Shimbun.
The tomb’s existence was initially concealed beneath a circular site covered in shrubbery, measuring approximately 8.5 meters (27.88 feet) in diameter and standing at a height of 1.5 meters (4.92 feet). For years, experts from the educational board had suspected that this unassuming shrubbery concealed an ancient tomb, which they referred to as the “Funazuka kofun” burial mound. It was only through recent excavations that their suspicions were confirmed.
Nara, a city in Japan renowned for its rich historical and cultural heritage, boasts an array of burial tombs. During the Kofun period, spanning from the 3rd to the 7th century CE, Nara saw the construction of keyhole-shaped burial mounds known as “kofun.” These mounds are characterized by a circular base connected to a larger, rectangular, or trapezoidal structure.
Kofun tombs held a specific purpose, serving as the final resting places for individuals of high social status, including rulers, warriors, and nobility. The deceased were interred within stone or wooden burial chambers, accompanied by a plethora of valuable grave goods, such as weapons, jewelry, pottery, and personal items, all intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
The construction of kofun was a labor-intensive process, involving the meticulous creation of earthen mounds and the arrangement of stones or crafted wooden burial chambers within them. The keyhole-shaped kofun, known as “zenpo-koen-fun,” are particularly notable for their scale and complexity.
Excavations of these mounds have provided valuable insights into burial customs, trade networks, technological advancements, and the hierarchical structure of ancient Japanese communities.