What happened when a Jomon villager died?

We don’t know exactly what happened when a death takes place in the Jomon village. But we do know that it was a big event and the Jomon society had important burial rituals.

Except for the earliest days of the Jomon era when the dead were buried in flexed body positions in the shellmounds, burials in pits or jars became the standard Jomon practice.

Some of the Jomon people had mass burials and village cemeteries with grave markers. Some of the most elaborate burials had to do with jar burials…especially for infants and children.

BurialjarsforchildrenSannaiMaruyama.jpg CHild burial jars picture by HeritageofjapanBurial jars for children, Sannai-Maruyama site

Jar burials From archaeological excavations, we also know today, that children had a special place in the hearts of the Jomon people. In some places, the Jomon people took great and special care in burying their babies and infants. Burial jars for babies,  infants and unborn foetuses, are commonly found in excavations in both eastern as well as western Japan. The jars were placed upright but many jars have no bottoms or have holes drilled in the bottom. 80% of the burial jars were of babies and unborn foetuses. 800 infant and child burial jars were discovered at the Sannai Maruyama site alone. Children’s graves are often separate from the adults’.

As the centuries passed, the burial rituals got more and more elaborate. During the Final Jomon stage, a few infants were buried with exquisite ornaments and the burial jars covered with iron oxide which is red in color – the color of magic.

BurialpotSannaiMaruyama.jpg picture by Heritageofjapan

Burial jar (Sannai-Maruyama site)

In a few places during the Final Jomon period, adults were also buried in burial jars. For both adults and children, the body was first arranged in a curled up body (or anatomically natural) position and then laid in their jars. Click here to see a photo of a such a burial.

Cremation was practiced only in rare cases (archaeologists have found burnt skeletal remains from the Early, Late and Final Jomon periods. Even more unusual was the practice of mass cremations where as many as fifteen people may have been cremated together. In Niigata and Nagano regions, burial sites with stone features such as a stone hearth, a feature with flagstones, and a stone feature with pottery containing burnt human bones were found together with the pits of burnt mass bones.

Pit burials were however the more common kind of burials. The Jomon people commonly buried their dead directly in pits without cremation. They placed the bodies in the pits with their knees flexed.

The burial pits were circular, oval- or oblong-shaped. Others were flask-shaped – these flask-shaped ones were once used to store food and were later used as burial pits. The most common type of burials were the pit burials.

BurialpitSannaiMaruyama.jpg Burial pit picture by Heritageofjapan

Burial pit, Sannai-Maruyama site

Unfortunately, not many human remains have been found in condition because of the soil in Japan is very acidic. Often these burial pits were located in the central plaza area within the horse-shoe shaped layout of pit-dwellings.

Circular stone burials The Jomon people sometimes marked their cemeteries of burial pits with circular stone arrangements called kanjo-haiseki-bo in Japanese.

166.jpg Stone circles Saroma picture by Heritageofjapan

Grave markers, a Jomon site near Lake Saroma in Hokkaido (Tokoro Archaeological site)

A small number of and a less common type of burial (but peculiar to western Japan) was the collective secondary burial. For this type of burial, skeletons were removed from their temporary burial places and then reburied together in masses into a large pit. This large mass pit-cemetery remained open for a long time with new bodies being added from time to time. The pit was then sealed and covered with some kind of structure over it.

In another type of secondary burial, the Jomon adult was placed in burial jars a long time after death, perhaps long after the flesh and tissues had rotted away.

Interestingly, in some of these burials, the bones were carefully arranged in a rectangular shape. Scholars and scientists still don’t have a clue as to why the Jomon people would go to such trouble to arrange the bones.

Abandoned house purification ritual One other known practice was for the Jomon people who lived in the Chiba and Kanagawa prefecture area to bury the dead person together with house where the death occurred and then the dwelling would be abandoned … or moved to a new location…perhaps in a purification ritual because the home was considered unclean or unlucky. They would place the dead person’s remains directly on the floor of the pit dwelling and then cover the body with shell layers.

Grave Goods In the beginning, the Jomon people buried their dead with everyday things like deep jars and stone tools such as arrowheads, scrapers and awls. Then from around the Middle Jomon period, they started burying their dead with precious ornaments in addition to common everyday things.

Sometimes the Jomon people were buried with or wearing ornaments such as clay, stone and jade beads, shell bracelets, pendants made of stones, boar ivory, shells, shark teeth and deer antler (these were either waist pendants or knife handles), amber ornaments and slitted stone earrings.

In the later years, more and more types of grave goods were seen. Ritual items like clay figurines, stone rods, stone swords and stone and clay tablets, all sorts of pottery, bowls and lacquered wooden goods went together with the Jomon burials.

Animals were sometimes buried too, particularly dogs, which must have been Jomon housepets.

Where were their cemeteries?

In many Jomon village settlements, they located their burial pits in clusters either in circles or rows at the center of the village. One common design was to locate the burial area in the center of the settlement, the rest of which radiates outwards in concentric circles. The pits are then surrounded by circular arrangement of so-called “raised-floor” buildings (structures with post-holes). Outside this zone are pit-dwellings and storage pits which form the outermost ring of the concentric patterns.

In another popular design, the pit burials are also located at the center of a plaza surrounding by pit dwellings arranged in a horseshoe-shaped or U-shaped pattern.

In other settlements, eg. that of Sannai Maruyama, the burial pits are arranged in rows along flattened earth pathways.

Pit burials are often marked with stone markers often arranged with stone circles (called kanjo haiseki-bo).

Some of the pits such as Sannai-Maruyama’s, had wooden frames built into the walls of the pits. There have also been discoveries in Aomori prefecture at the Horiai site of pits with stone walls, i.e. stone coffins. Stone circles were most common during the Late to Final Jomon periods.

During the Late Jomon period, a kind of graveyard called the kanjo dori appeared in some parts of Hokkaido. Grave pits are found in the centre ring area. There is a circular pit that surrounds the central grave pit area, and on the outside is an embankment dug from the dirt from the inner circular pit. The embankments vary between 0.5 and 5.4 meters. The central pit usually contains mass graves but single graves have also been found.

It has been noted that in some settlements, there are two groups of graves, whose bodies were arranged in different directions, either north-south or east west. This may indicated that there were two different groups of people within the same settlement.

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