Kofun period people sought after shell bracelets and amulets from the southern islands

Between the Yayoi and Kofun Periods, shell bracelets and amulets made of shells from the Ryukyu Islands were extremely popular and a brisk trade in these items went on.  Later during the Kofun period, however,  there was a shift to locally producing imitation bracelets out of stone, perhaps due to the insatiable demand for the prestige goods.

Mysterious Shell Artifacts from the Hirota Site, Kagoshima Prefecture

Bracelet (Cone Shell) and Amulet (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)

The Hirota site is an ancient burial site located atop a sand dune on Tanegashima, an island off the southern coast of Kyushu. The site dates from the late Yayoi to the Kofun period. It was discovered in 1955, and excavations were conducted between 1957 and 1959 by archaeologists including Morizono Naotaka, Kokubu Naoichi and Kanaseki Takeo. The excavations uncovered the remains of as many as 90 graves and over 150 human bones. More than 44,000 shell artifacts were also found, including amulets and shell bracelets carved with distinctive designs and crossed-comma-shaped pendants. These are unique to the southern islands of Japan, and have received attention for their sophisticated craftsmanship.

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Bracelet (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)
Crossed-Comma-Shaped Pendants (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)
Amulet (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)
Combination Bracelets (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)
Ornaments with Perforations (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)
Beads (Cone Shell), Hirota, Minami Tane-cho, Kagoshima, Yayoi-Kofun period, 3rd – 7th century, (Important Cultural Property, Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Center for Historical Material)

Archaeological surveys of the site have since continued to uncover the remains of further graves, in addition to approximately 3,000 artifacts including worked shell objects, earthenware and glass beads. The site provides important insight into the unique customs of southern island society and the breadth of Japanese culture, and for this reason was designated as a Historic Site by the Japanese government in 2008. Artifacts from the site were designated as Important Cultural Property the following year.

As part of the Tokyo National Museum’s annual archaeological object exchange program, a selection of artifacts from the site are on view courtesy of Reimeikan, Kagoshima Prefectural Centre for Historical Material. Visitors are invited to savor the mystery of these unusual shell objects from Japan’s southern islands

Source: On exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum – Heiseikan Japanese Archaeology Gallery December 14, 2010 (Tue) – March 13, 2011

Sources & references:

Tokyo National Museum

A Companion to Japanese History, see “Japanese Beginnings” by Mark Hudson p.22, chap. 1 Edited by William M. Tsutsui

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