Workers Paving a Japanese Road Unearth Remarkable 1,500-Year-Old Armor and Sword
Could you imagine? You are tired after working for hours on fixing a roadway when you suddenly find a strange slab of stone. This gives you a jolt of energy and you call a coworker over. Together you dig away furiously to see what the stone belongs to. Eventually you reveal a stone coffin. Curiosity peaked and a hint of the possibility of treasure lead you to slowly lift open the lid…inside you find a well-preserved set of weapons and some really old armor. Time to call an archaeologist in!
This may be something like how workers paving a road in the Osumi region in the eastern Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan stumbled upon a 1,500-year-old tunnel tomb. The Asahi Shimbun reports that a pumice stone coffin, well-preserved armor, and human remains were unearthed by laborers this past December. This type of tomb is only found in the southern Kyushu region.
Tatsuya Hashimoto, a professor of archaeology at the Kagoshima University Museum, suggested to the Asahi Shuimbun that the style of the armor lends itself to having been owned by an elite who lived during the Kofun (ancient tomb culture) period. Hashimoto said, “It was likely built for a powerful leader in the local region who was directly connected with the Yamato imperial court.”
The Yamato imperial court was based out of modern-day Nara Prefecture and had strong immigration and diplomatic ties with Korea and China. According to New World Encyclopedia, this was a rich cultural time when “A system of writing was adopted, power was centralized, society became stratified and a government administration was set up based on the Chinese model. Buddhism, officially introduced in 552, was dominant by 600, and many temples were constructed.”
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Clay horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups. A haniwa, from the Kofun period (6th century) in the history of Japan. (Public Domain)
Kofun tombs are the most famous element of the Kofun age. The iconic earthen mounds were originally built for elite members of society, however commoners began to have their burials in the sculpted hills by the end of the Kofun period.
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Daisen-kofun in Sakai, Osaka, Japan. This is one of the largest tombs in the world. (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism)
The grave found in the Osumi region has been dated to the late 3rd to 4th centuries and is regarded as one of the largest tunnel tombs discovered in the area so far. The vertical shaft measures 2.6 meters (8’6 ft.) long, 1.8 meters (6 ft.) wide, and 1.6 meters (5’3 ft.) deep. The chamber which held the coffin is also 2.6 meters (8’6 ft.) long, but measures 1.9 meters (6’3 ft.) wide, and only 90 cm (3ft.) deep.
The stone coffin measures 2.4 meters (7’10 ft.) long and contained the remains of a 1.7 meter (5’7 ft.) tall adult male. More than 20 grave goods were discovered, including a sword, its scabbard, an iron arrowhead, iron axe, and a spear. An immaculately-preserved tankō was also placed alongside the coffin.
A Japanese iron plates and leather tankō cuirass. Nagatoronishi Tumulus, Takasaki-shi, Gunma. Kofun period. (James Blake Wiener/CC BY NC SA)
The Met provides a description of the Japanese armor called a tankō, stating that it is “is constructed entirely of horizontal iron plates joined by rivets. The tankō's rigid cuirass, shaped to the body, is higher in the back and opens at the center front.” The right front panel of a tankō “is hinged at the side to admit the body. The complete tankō would have included the helmet of plate with a deep neck guard, neckplates, shoulderplates, arm guards, and a deep skirt.”
Top Image: A cuirass known as a “tanko” and preserved in excellent condition, and a stone coffin, left, have been unearthed in Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture. Source: Shibushi city education board