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Kamigamo Shrine is an important Shinto sanctuary in northeast Kyoto, first founded in 678. It is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, and has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Glass shard found at Japanese shrine matches artifacts from Persian Royal Palace

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A group of researchers have discovered that the chemical composition of a fragment of glass found 50 years ago at a shrine in Kyoto, Japan closely resembles that of glass found in the ruins of a royal Persian palace at Ctesiphon, in central Iraq, and belonging to the Sasanian Dynasty (226-651). The find helps researchers shed light on ancient trade, and the origins of the shard.

The enigmatic glass shard found in an ancient shrine in Japan matches glass found in a Persian Royal Palace.

The enigmatic glass shard found in an ancient shrine in Japan matches glass found in a Persian Royal Palace. Credit: Yoshinari Abe, Tokyo University of Science

The team of researchers includes Yoshinari Abe, assistant professor of analytical chemistry at the Tokyo University of Science . The team believes that the glass from the Kamigamojinja shrine was manufactured between the sixth and seventh centuries. It has characteristics similar to the “Hakururinowan” bowl preserved in Nara’s Shosoin Repository at Todaiji temple, and the researchers are hoping that the fragment will help them establish where the bowl and other treasures kept at the temple originally came from. It is thought to have once been part of a thick glass bowl adorned with double circular patterns which was discovered in 1964 at a location north of the shrine’s main hall, in Kita Ward.

Two examples of glass bowls from the Sasanian Empire.

Two examples of glass bowls from the Sasanian Empire. (Alborz Fallah / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

“In those days, only super high-grade products made in West Asia may have been brought to Japan” Ryuji Shikaku told The Asahi Shimbun . Shikaku is a researcher at the Okayama Orient Museum who specializes in West Asian archaeology and has been assisting Abe and his team at the SPring-8, the world’s largest synchrotron radiation facility, in Sayo, Hyogo Prefecture.

Abe’s research team previously discovered that the chemical composition of a glass bowl from the tomb of the Niizawasenzuka group of ancient tombs in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture. The composition resembled those of a glass bowl with circular patterns, and a glass dish from the Sasanian Dynasty and the Roman Empire (27 BC - 395 AD).

It can only be speculated if the glass artifact (now in pieces) was once brought into Japan via the Silk Road. The Silk Road (or Route), was a 6,000-kilometer-long trade network frequented from about 114 BC to the 1450s which linked far-flung regions of the ancient world in commerce. It was not an actual road, but a shifting path connecting a series of trade stops, villages, and cities through which merchants would pass. Routes were subject to change depending on local politics.

Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route.

Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. ( Public Domain )

The Silk Road bridged the East and West, allowing cultures to interact, share and trade goods, especially as raw materials and luxury items, such as glass or ceramics. The trade route was frequented by pilgrims, merchants, soldiers, and nomads across continents and civilizations. And while Japan was easternmost of the Silk Road journeys, and as such did not see as many foreign visitors, certainly fine goods did make their way there – as did Buddhism, “perhaps one of the most influential imports brought to Japan along these old trade routes,” notes UNESCO.

The palace of Ardashir of ancient Persia, built in AD 224 by King Ardashir I of the Sassanian Empire.

The palace of Ardashir of ancient Persia, built in AD 224 by King Ardashir I of the Sassanian Empire. ( Public Domain )

The Kamigamojinja (or Kamigamo) shrine is dedicated to Kamowakeikazuchi no Okami, an ancestor god venerated by the ancient Kamo clan. Rituals are believed to have been undertaken there at various times in its ancient history. The Kamo Clan arose during Japans Asuka and Heian periods. Kamowakeikazuchi no Okami was a Shinto rain god.

The Persian palace was situated in Veh-Ardashir, the dynasty’s wealthy capital. The Sasanian Empire was the last empire to rule Persia before the rise of Islam. It was a successor to the Parthian Empire and for over 400 years was a major world power alongside the Roman-Byzantine Empire. 

The glass fragment is being kept at the Kyoto City Archaeological Museum.

The serene Kamigamojinja shrine in Kyoto has revealed an ancient glass shard which may have originated in ancient Persia.

The serene Kamigamojinja shrine in Kyoto has revealed an ancient glass shard which may have originated in ancient Persia. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Featured image: Kamigamo Shrine is an important Shinto sanctuary in northeast Kyoto, first founded in 678. It is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, and has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. ( Public Domain )

By Robin Whitlock

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