The latest find of seven dotaku bells from Awajishima Island pushes back date for the practice of burying bronze bells earlier by a century

Dotaku bells found on Awajishima Island (The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 20, 2015)

Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Seven dotaku bronze bells from the mid-Yayoi period, or around the second century B.C., were found in Minami-Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture, on Awajishima island, the prefectural and municipal boards of education said Tuesday.

The bells were found in a pile of sand taken from the city’s coastal district Matsuho, and they were named “Matsuho dotaku.”

This is the fourth-largest number of dotaku bells to be excavated from a single site. The biggest trove, 39 bells, was found at the Kamo Iwakura Ruins in Unnan, Shimane Prefecture. The latest discovery is the oldest trove of dotaku bells to be unearthed at one time. Experts say “These dotaku bells are worthy to be designated as national treasures as they could help understand the use of dotaku bells in ancient rituals.”

The dotaku bells are from 22 to 32 centimeters in height and from 13 to 19 centimeters in base width, and do not have any drawings on them. One of the seven bells has a handle — called a chu — with a lozenge-shaped cross section. This is believed to be the oldest type of dotaku bell, and only 11 other bells of this type have been confirmed in the nation so far.

Meanwhile, three of the seven bells have 8- to 13-centimeter tongues made of bronze. This is the largest number of tongues found at once.

Picture illustrates what a tongue is Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Picture illustrates what a tongue is Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

There are no other known cases of a number of dotaku bells with tongues found buried at one time. So there is a possibility that the recently discovered bells were used in the oldest form of rituals in which many dotaku bells were buried together.

Clue for use of dotaku bells in rituals

The seven dotaku bronze bells discovered on Awajishima island can provide clues for the study of their use in rituals in early times.

The practice of burying a number of dotaku bells together is believed to have been concentrated in two periods — the mid-Yayoi period — from the first century B.C. through to the first century — and the late-Yayoi period at the end of the second century. However, the latest discovery has pushed back the beginning of the practice by more than a century, and some theorize that the practice resumed after a certain period.

Regardless of region, burials of dotaku bells have some things in common — placing smaller bells inside larger bells and burying the nested bells with the fin (decorative plate) set in an upright position. In the latest discovery, the dotaku bells are presumed to have been buried in the same fashion. However, in the latest case, the tongues to sound the bells were excavated along with the dotaku bells. This indicates the possibility of the bells having been used in the earliest form of rituals, which involved burying numerous dotaku bells.

Hideto Morioka, a member of the prefecture’s Ashia municipal board of education, who is an expert on dotaku bells, said, “There is the possibility that dotaku bells were buried periodically in order to pass on rituals to later generations, and can be compared to the shikinen-sengu [periodic transfer of a deity] of a shrine performed once every predetermined number of years.”

Meanwhile, the place on Awajishima island where the dotaku bells were found also attracts attention. According to the Hyogo prefectural board of education and others, 21 of the 68 dotaku bells that have been found in the prefecture, including the recently discovered seven, have been excavated on the island.

Regarding the Matsuho district, from which the pile of sand in which the seven dotaku bells were buried was taken, there is a record that several dotaku bells were found as early as 1686, during the early Edo period (1603-1868).

Meanwhile, mythologies on the creation of Japan in “Kojiki” (Record of Ancient Matters) and “Nihonshoki” (Chronicles of Japan) refer to Awajishima as having been created first, prompting some experts to suggest a possible connection with these mythologies.

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Masaaki Ueda, professor emeritus at Kyoto University on ancient history, said, “Awajishima was a strategic point in the Seto Inland Sea. The latest discovery may reflect the fact that the place had been important since the Yayoi period.”

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To read more about the possible uses of ancient bronze bells, see Treasure finds: magical mirrors and bronze bells.

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