Walking Tour of Sannai Maruyama

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Jomon Lifestyles

Jomon Diorama, Niigata Prefecture Japan
Jomon Diorama, Niigata Prefecture Japan. niigata-ryokou

The Jomon people were fisher-hunter-gatherers who lived on the islands of what is now Japan between about 14,000 BC and AD 500. Within that long period of time, the Jomon lived in different ways, adapting with climatic change and other natural and cultural forces.

While the Jomon were definitely not agriculturalists--they depended on hunting, gathering and fishing--by the Early Jomon period of about 6,000 years ago, they did live a settled life in fairly organized villages. Information collected from the large Sannai Maruyama archaeological site, occupied by Jomon hunter-gatherers between about 3900-2300 BC, has given us much more information about how the Jomon lived. Sannai Maruyama is well worth visiting, even if you can't get to Japan.

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The National Historical Site

Location of Sannai Maruyama, Japan
Location of Sannai Maruyama, Japan. CIA

Sannai Maruyama is a National Historical Site located on the northern end of Honshu Island, Japan. It is an enormous Jomon period settlement, occupied between about 6000-4300 years ago, and it is currently a major tourist attraction, with several reconstructed buildings and a museum exhibit open to the public.

The site was first noted in the 17th century, and small test units were excavated in the 1950s. But the size and complexity of Sannai Maruyama wasn't understood until the 1990s, when archaeologists were surveying in advance of a baseball stadium.

Archaeologists estimate that only about 40% of the site has been excavated. That has identified over 700 pit-dwellings, 11 long-houses, 120 raised floor buildings, 380 adult grave pits, 800 jar burials for children and infants, 17 stone circles, three clusters of clay mining pits, three road ways built of tamped earth, two water-logged middens and two large midden mounds.

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Bark-Thatched Pit Dwellings

Pit Dwelling with Bark-Thatched Roof, Sannai Maruyama
Pit Dwelling with Bark-Thatched Roof, Sannai Maruyama. nyaa birdies perch

Some of the pit houses seen at Sannai Maruyama were simple thatched-roof semisubterranean houses, such as this one, reconstructed for the site museum. To make a bark-thatched pit dwelling, a pit was excavated into the ground and a bark or wood branches were assembled over the top in a tipi-like manner.

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Pit Dwellings

Reconstructed Pit Dwelling, Sannai Maruyama
Reconstructed Pit Dwelling, Sannai Maruyama. nyaa birdies perch

The most frequent type of residential structure at Sannai Maruyama is a pit dwelling. Like the thatched tipi form, the floor of a pit dwelling was dug into the ground. Then, supporting posts were placed at the corners and the walls and roof were built and roofed with thatch. The average size of a pit dwelling is between three and four meters in diameter with a 12 square meter floor plan.

The earliest pit dwellings at Sannai Maruyama were during the Early Jomon period, built between 5900 and 5400 years ago. At that time, Sannai was comparatively small and simple, a collection of pit dwellings and the beginnings of a midden (refuse dump).

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Six Pillar Buildings

Six-Pillar Storage at Sannai Maruyama, Japan
Six-Pillar Storage at Sannai Maruyama, Japan. nyaa birdies perch

During the first half of the Middle Jomon period (ca 5400-4900 years ago), the people at Sannai Maruyama still mainly lived in pit dwellings. However, new complexity to the site began, with specific burials, storage facilities, and a few six pillared buildings.

Six-pillared buildings are something the archaeologists have surmised from the data. In several places, six postmolds are set in a rectangular pattern. Postmolds are circular stains in the earth, signs where wooden posts were purposefully placed in the earth and eventually rotted there. The six-pillared buildings don't have built floors--at least none at ground level, and there are many fewer of them than pit dwellings. Archaeologists have interpreted these as raised floor dwellings or special storage facilities.

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Long Houses

Long House at Sannai Maruyama, Japan
Long House at Sannai Maruyama, Japan. Perezoso

Eleven long houses have been excavated at Sannai Maruyama. They were large, oval-shaped semi-subterranean pit dwellings. The reconstruction illustrated here is the longest, measuring 32 meters in length. Long houses were first built during the latter half of the Middle Jomon period, between about 5400 and 4900 years ago.

Archaeologists believe that these structures probably had some special function, perhaps a meeting house or a specialist workshop.

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Large Six Pillar Structure

Reconstructed Six-Tiered Building, Sannai Maruyama, Japan
Reconstructed Six-Tiered Building, Sannai Maruyama, Japan. nyaa birdies perch

This 14.7 meter tower structure is a reconstruction based on evidence from the archaeology at Sannai Maruyama. The archaeological evidence of its form consists of six postmolds, set out in a rectangular pattern, in the same manner as the smaller six-pillar structures. But in this case, each of the postmolds was 1.6 meters in diameter with an average depth of more than 2 meters. At the bottom of each post mold was a piece of the post itself, a large chestnut tree bole, 75-95 centimeters in diameter.

Archaeologists feel these posts might represent the support posts for a large watch tower or other special building.

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Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site Overview
Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site Overview. nyaa_birdies_perch

Burials at Sannai Maruyama took three forms: jar burials, pit burials, and stone circle burials. Large jars were discovered near the pit dwelling clusters, containing stone tools or fist-sized cobbles. The bases of these jars all had holes drilled in the bottom. These are assumed to be burials, although human bones have not been preserved within them, on the basis of similar burials found in later Jomon sites. Jar burials have been dated to the Middle Jomon period, from 5400-4300 years ago.

The second form of burial was of adults aligned in rows along the sides of long roadways extending from the center of the settlement towards the outside. The 5-14 meter wide roads measured approximately 400 meters in length, and were of tamped and cut earth. They were first built about 5400-4300 years ago.

Finally, stone circle arrangements were found at Sannai Maruyama, which included adult burials. These date to 4400 BP.

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Jomon Diets

North Midden, Sannai Maruyama, Japan
North Midden, Sannai Maruyama, Japan. nyaa_birdies_perch

Jomon diets were revealed from the midden deposits discovered in several parts of the Sannai Maruyama site, including two waterlogged ones. Within the waterlogged components, organic preservation was excellent, allowing the recovery of information about the Jomon fisher-hunter-gatherers who lived there.

The most abundant of foods discovered at the site were fish and marine mammals, including yellow tail, blowfish, mackerel, scorpion fish, surf perch, and several species of shark. The presence of blowfish is interesting--it is a delicacy in Japan today, but a fish that is extremely poisonous unless properly handled and cooked.

Terrestrial animals represented in the middens are rabbit, flying squirrels and a few deer and wild boar.

Plants found in the middens are chestnut, walnut, raspberry, elderberry, and wild grape, possibly for making fruit wine. Cultigens--that is to say, plants that required tending--occurred in small amounts in the middens at Sannai Maruyama, but include bottle gourd, beans, and burdock.

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Jomon Ceramics

Applique Pot, Middle Jomon, Sannai Maruyama Site
Applique Pot, Middle Jomon, Sannai Maruyama Site. Perezoso

Over 14,000 crates of artifacts have been excavated from Sannai Maruyama, primarily stone and bone tools. Pottery from the early Jomon period include Ento style pots, which are cord-marked bucket-shaped pots with a wide opening. Middle Jomon pots are appliquéd, like the one in the photograph.

Stone tools include arrowheads, awls, and polished stone axes. Because of the preservation in the midden, bone fishhooks and harpoon heads, bone needles and awls were found, as were basketry and bright red lacquerwares.

More than 1500 clay figurines or figurine fragments have been found at Sannai Maruyama, including boar effigies, crown-shapes, triangular clay objects, miniature pottery vessels, and stylized human effigies, flat, cross-shaped illustrated with faces, chests and bellybuttons. Personal ornaments found include clay and stone pendants and earrings.

Exotic materials include obsidian from Hokkaido and Nagano prefecture, some 580 kilometers away; and bitumen, used for arrowshaft hafting, from 200 kilometers away. Jade from Niigata prefecture some 500 kilometers away, was found in unworked pieces, jade beads and uncompleted jade beads, leading the excavators to believe a jade bead workshop was located at the site.

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Reconstructed Longhouse Interior at Sannai Maruyama
Reconstructed Longhouse Interior at Sannai Maruyama. yisris


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Jomon Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

See the official Sannai Maruyama website for further information. If you are planning a visit to Japan, the site is open to visitors, with a museum and several reconstructed buildings.

Habu J. 2008. Growth and decline in complex hunter-gatherer societies: a case study from the Jomon period Sannai Maruyama site, Japan. Antiquity 82:571–584.

Habu J, and Fawcett C. 1999. Jomon archaeology and the representation of Japanese origins. Antiquity 73:587-793.

Habu J, Kim M, Katayama M, and Komiya H. 2001. Jomon subsistence-settlement systems at the Sannai Maruyama site. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 21:9-21.

Katayama M. 2011. Fishing and Early Jomon Foodways at Sannai Maruyama, Japan: University of California, Berkeley.

Kawahata H, Yamamoto H, Ohkushi Ki, Yokoyama Y, Kimoto K, Ohshima H, and Matsuzaki H. 2009. Changes of environments and human activity at the Sannai-Maruyama ruins in Japan during the mid-Holocene Hypsithermal climatic interval. Quaternary Science Reviews 28(9–10):964-974.