In the news: Roman glass beads uncovered in Japanese 5th century nobleman’s tomb near Kyoto

Roman jewellery found in ancient Japan tomb

A 5mm diameter piece of glass jewellery believed to have been made by Roman craftsmen, was found in an ancient tomb at Nagaokakyo near Kyoto, in western Japan. The glass beads are one of the oldest multilayered glass products were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan, a researcher said.

Glass jewellery believed to have been made by Roman craftsmen has been found in an ancient tomb in Japan, researchers said Friday, in a sign the empire’s influence may have reached the edge of Asia.

Tests have revealed three glass beads discovered in the Fifth Century “Utsukushi” burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, were probably made some time between the first and the fourth century, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties said.

The government-backed institute has recently finished analysing components of the glass beads, measuring five millimetres (0.2 inches) in diametre, with tiny fragments of gilt attached.

It found that the light yellow beads were made with natron, a chemical used to melt glass by craftsmen in the empire, which succeeded the Roman Republic in 27 BC and was ultimately ended by the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The beads, which have a hole through the middle, were made with a multilayering technique — a relatively sophisticated method in which craftsmen piled up layers of glass, often sandwiching gold leaf in between.

“They are one of the oldest multilayered glass products found in Japan, and very rare accessories that were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan,” said Tomomi Tamura, a researcher at the institute.

The Roman Empire was concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea and stretched northwards to occupy present-day England. The finding in Japan, some 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) from Italy, may shed some light on how far east its influence reached, Tamura said.

“It will also lead to further studies on how they could have got all the way to Japan,” she said.

(Bangkok Post, 22/06/2012 )


Further reading:

Roman Jewelry in 5th C. Japanese Tomb  by Laura Kelley. (Nara National Research Institute. Article retrieved online from The Silk Road website Aug 8, 2012)
New evidence of the power and reach of the Silk Road seems to be puzzling and mystifying scholars. Roman jewelry was recently found in in a Japanese tomb dating from the 5th Century ACE. Why this startles anyone is beyond me. The network of maritime and land traders that we now know as the Silk Road linked west and east as far back as 2000 years BCE when episodic trade between Afghanistan and China began for lapis lazuli and jade. Humans being human, news of beautiful, desirable or delicious things spread rapidly. In addition, migration, forced or voluntary (for economic reasons) was common and brought people together in unlikely combinations – Jews in China, Greeks in Timur’s Uzbekistan, Arabs in Venice, Chinese in Azerbaijan and Africa etc.

Roman Beads in Japanese Tomb

The discovery in question is three glass beads, each about 5 mm in diameter that are clearly of Roman manufacture – showing the layered glass and gilt technique common in the empire as well as natron in the manufacture of the glass. In the photos above, it is easy to see the layering – especially in the bead on the right. The flecks of gold gilt is evident on both. Beautiful indeed. One can see why they were precious even in Japan, far away from their point of manufacture.

Tests run by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties have revealed three glass beads discovered in the Fifth Century “Utsukushi” burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, were probably made in Rome some time between the first and the fourth century ACE.

How, exactly, the beads got to Japan is not known. They could have been recent purchases, or heirlooms handed down from parent to child for centuries before their burial, or they could have come to Japan along with the many Chinese and Korean immigrants who became naturalized Japanese and held important positions at the Yamato court during the Kofun period (250-538 A.D.). The tomb itself dates back to the Yamato period of Japanese history, an era marked by inter-provincial warfare when the Imperial capitol was located in Nara.

But to be sure, the Silk Road complex of trading networks on sea and land that ran from Europe through Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, China, and Korea to Japan and back again was how they traveled from Rome to Japan. Traders did local legs of the massive voyage, stopping at market cities to sell their goods which would then be traded again a little further away and so on, until silk from China wound up adorning Roman emperors and Roman gold-flecked glassware jewels ended up the prized possession of a 5th century Japanese nobleman.


Read more about Gene Howington’s ideas about how and where the ancient connections between East and West might have taken place in “Ancient Rome, Japan and the Interconnected World” (Res Ipsa Loquitur). In the article, Howington mentions a Viking “amber route” and that “In 2010, archaeologists and genetics researchers examining a Roman graveyard near Vagnari in Southern Italy found a 2,000 year-old skeleton with mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) that showed a body buried there had East Asian lineage”.

More details of the amber route, may be found at “Amber Routes“, by Trade Routes Resources, a website that is a part of the Old World Trade Routes (OWTRAD) Project:

“Amber, obtained in major excavation centres in Jutland and on eastern Baltic Coast began to spread in central Europe reaching even Egypt. Baltic amber beads were found in 3400-2400 BC pharaoh tombs in Tethys pyramid. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who in 1871-1890 excavated Troy in addition to other artefacts found amber beads. Scientists established that they were made from amber that had been brought from the Baltic Coast in 3000 BC. This archaeologist has found Baltic amber also in cupola tombs of Mycenaean culture built on Crete Island in 1600-800 BC.”

Amber trade routes

See also a map of the Amber Route of the Hyperboreans travelling from Greece to Hamburg.


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