The Jomon Hearth and Home

At the very beginning of the Jomon era (10,000-8,000 BC), the Jomon hunter-gatherers lived in caves or rock shelters like people during the Paleolithic era did.
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Jomon pit house (Model Jomon house, Kawasaki City Museum)

Very soon however, the Jomon people learnt to build and to live in pit dwellings. And for nearly 10,000 years, and even into the next Yayoi era, pit dwellings continued to be the basic kind of home for people.

HomeandHearthFamilylife.jpg Family life picture by Heritageofjapan

The pit house remained a basic home forJomon people for thousands of years

(Model Jomon house, Kawasaki City Museum)

There are 2 types of basic dwellings for the Jomon: 

1) Pit-type dwelling – this consists of a shallow pit with an earthen floor covered by a thatched roof
2) Circular dwelling – a round floor was made from dried clay or stones, and covered with a roof.

Some pit houses were small, others were larger with thatched roofs supported by sturdy posts set deep into the ground.

Pit houses in the early days were often built so that the floors were sunk into the subterranean earth level where the earth’s natural warmth made for more comfortable homes. Floors were often half meter below ground level and were usually just dirt or earthen floors tamped hard. In the very beginning, Jomon homes were mere circular huts. 

178.jpg picture by HeritageofjapanLateJomondwellingframework.jpg Building of a Late Jomon pit house picture by Heritageofjapan

Jomon pit houses with sturdier posts and outer structure (Restored Jomon house(left) and model, Tokoro Archaeological Center)

Later, the Jomon people built sturdier inner posts, usually five or six strong enough to hold a roof over a square or rectangular floor with rounded corners. Still later during the Jomon era, however, many pit houses were raised and sometimes had floors covered in flagstones. Kaya (Miscanthus) grass was used as roofing grass to keep the home dry, and rainwater shed by the pitched roof drained off through surrounding ditches. KawasakiCityMuseum028.jpg Jomon home picture by HeritageofjapanModel of a Jomon home with an indoor fireplace (Kawasaki City Museum)

At some point, fireplaces were moved into the houses, allowing for indoor cooking and helpful in smoking away insects and keeping the occupants warm. Fireplaces were sometimes placed in the middle, but usually not. They were sometimes lined with stones or furnished with a bowl or pot. Most pit houses also came with smoking ditches, used for smoking meats. Where food was plentiful, storage pits could be found both inside and outside the pit houses. The pits were lined with layers of leaves and nuts to keep the pit dry.   

The floor area could be 3 meters or more in diameter which was spacious enough for cooking indoors and storage. Storage pits were found both inside the houses and outside. Pit houses were usually equipped with a hearth. Sometimes, the houses were built with a special fire pit with a tunnel connecting the pit to a ventilation shaft. Scholars think these fire pits were best designed for smoking meat, fish or shellfish.

Pit dwellings are found in thousands of excavation sites all over Japan.

The average settlement is oval shaped, with the dwellings located in a circle or semi-circle (sometimes called the horseshoe shape). This may have been designed for creating a community space for group tasks such as stone tool or pottery manufacture and perhaps for village meetings and ceremonies. However, the central plaza space in the middle of many of the settlements was often also the village cemetery.

In some Jomon villages, roads that were sometimes paved led from the pit dwellings through the village and down to the sea or river.

3 responses to “The Jomon Hearth and Home

  1. I love Your blog and the information you have on it ,, life was so simple looking in these times ,, It seems like a wonderful way of living with no worries or bills ,, Its like the our father prayer ,, give us this day our daily bread ,, what a wonderful way in living

  2. Ma’am, I have another question. And I swear, this is a serious question, not a joke.

    Is there anything in the Japanese building code about pit houses such as the above?

    Is it legal to construct and inhabit such a structure inside a city, or in the province? And can a homeowner who lost his home to a manmade circumstance, such as say…arson or terrorist attack, build such a structure on the plot of land that he owned, since it was the cheapest thing they could think of?

  3. No reason why not, as long as you comply with building code. See example of 14 yo who built his own pit-house home Not many people do it though because they are biodegradable and require a lot of work replacing the materials. If you live in Japan, you can still see renovation work done to thatched homes, lots of workers needed, usually whole village worked on the project together in the past. Know-how to build good thatched homes like the ones in Japan is dwindling around the world and in Japan though. New interpretations of pit houses see are being built by modern architects though and these are pretty desirable as design showpieces. But I don’t see why you couldn’t have a cheaper hybrid container prefab house built over a pit foundation – or kind of trailer-home-cum-pit-dwelling home. In the end, it is all about innovation and design creativity.

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