Historic Site Hirota:
Gorgeous accessories using shell from the south seas. People with unique customs who lived at a relay point on the “shell route.”

Panorama, Hirota Site (from the north) The tree-covered sand dune in the foreground is the Hirota site. The rocket launching site of the Tanegashima Space Center is visible in the distance. Adapted from Hakkutsu sareta Nihon rettō 2008 [Excavations in the Japanese Archipelago, 2008] (Bunkachō [Agency for Cultural Affairs], ed., Asahi Shimbunsha, 2008).

Human skeletons in situ in the 1958 investigation At the southern burial group, investigated in 1958, a large amount of skeletal material from as many as 157 individuals was unearthed, from three cultural strata concentrated in an area of only about 230 square meters.

Tooth-extracted skeleton recovered from burial No. 2, southern sector (Final Yayoi-Early Kofun) A lateral incisor of the maxilla (left side only; see arrow) had been extracted. From around the neck 2 dragonhead shell pendants and 66 olive shell beads with lines and rows of dots incised on the surfaces, plus 689 beads made of tusk and cone shells were discovered. From the way they were found, these shell items are understood to have been strung together as a necklace.

Shell accessory recovered from burial No. 2, southern sector This is the complete necklace worn by the skeleton found in burial No. 2 of the southern sector. The dragonhead shell pendants at center, using the large univalve cone shell of the south seas as material, is a type of shell item found only at the Hirota site. The length of the dragonhead pendant on the left at center is 4.4 cm. Adapted from Hakkutsu sareta Nihon rettō 2008 [Excavations in the Japanese Archipelago, 2008] (Bunkachō [Agency for Cultural Affairs], ed., Asahi Shimbunsha, 2008).

Burial No. 1, northern sector, in situ This is a young man wearing 7 shell bracelets made from a limpet (Patella optima) on his right arm. A vessel made of green turban shell had been interred near the upper left arm. A polished stone arrowhead (see arrow), thought to have penetrated during his lifetime, was found near the second and third lumbar vertebrae.

Burial No. 2, northern sector (Final Yayoi), in situ For this burial, blocks of coral and round cobbles had been lined up on the ground surface as a grave marker. This type of burial is called a “stone-covered grave,” and was a mortuary practice popular at this time as a funerary custom unique to Tanegashima. An offering of 4 pieces of pottery had been made on top of the stone cover, and one of the pots had been squeezed under a coral block placed as a standing stone.

Lateral view of the skeleton recovered from burial No. 1, northern sector (Final Yayoi) Viewed from the side, the skull is seen to be flattened at the back. Not only this skeleton, but all of the skeletons found at Hirota were flat-headed. For this reason it is thought that the Hirota people followed the custom of deliberately deforming the skull. As people practicing this form of cranial deformation have not been found in any other region in the Japanese archipelago, it may be regarded as a special characteristic of the Hirota residents.

A burial (artist’s reconstruction) From the artifacts recovered at the Hirota site it is thought that there were female shamans or leaders.

Shell pendant (lower stratum type)

Final Yayoi-Early Kofun, third-fourth centuries. Length: 3.4 cm; width: 3.1 cm; height: 0.5 cm.

A piece of cone shell, cut in the shape of a board and worked with a characteristic pattern in bas-relief, is called kaifu (shell badge) because of its resemblance to an amulet (gofu, “protection badge”). Among these items the lower stratum type is perforated, and is understood to have been used as a pendant-like accessory.

Shell pendants (upper stratum type)

Late-Final Kofun, sixth-seventh centuries. (Item at left, second row) Length: 5.7 cm; width: 1.9 cm.

Most of these items recovered from the upper stratum are not perforated, and were placed around or on top of the buried individual. For this reason, of the upper stratum shell pendants, those with no holes are regarded not as accessories, but simply as grave goods.

Shell artifacts and small glass beads

(Limpet shell bracelets, top) Final Yayoi, third century. Length: 10.0 cm; width: 7.0 cm.

In the 2005-06 investigation as many as 2,966 items of shell accessories and 28 small glass beads were recovered. The small glass beads at the center of the photo were found in the grave of an infant about one or two years of age (burial No. 1, southern sector), and from the condition in which they were found, they are thought to have been linked together with cone shell beads and used as a necklace. The shell spoon (a vessel made of green turban shell) shown magnified at bottom right is 10.0 cm long and 5.5 cm wide, and was placed near the upper left arm of the skeleton of burial No. 1, northern sector. As turban shell cannot be collected from the seas near Tanegashima, it is thought to have been obtained through exchange with the Amami and Okinawa archipelagoes.

Adapted from Hakkutsu sareta Nihon rettō 2008 [Excavations in the Japanese Archipelago, 2008]
(Bunkachō [Agency for Cultural Affairs], ed., Asahi Shimbunsha, 2008).
Photos courtesy of Minamitane municipal board of education.
An imaginary illustration by Yuka Tanaka.

Hirota Site, Minamitane Town, Kagoshima Prefecture

Cemeteries follow one after another atop coastal dunes

No mounded burials of any kind have been found on the island of Tanegashima, and in the span extending from the Yayoi to the Kofun periods of the mainland, people made cemeteries on coastal sand dunes.

The Hirota site, known as a representative example, is a collective graveyard built atop a sand dune, 100 m in overall length and facing the Pacific Ocean, in the southern part of Tanegashima.

The investigation of this site was first conducted from 1957 to 1959 by Kokubu Naoichi and Morizono Naotaka, and skeletal remains of 157 individuals were recovered from 90 mortuary features, including multiple burials.

Unique customs

The people buried at this cemetery averaged only 154 cm in height for adult males and 143 cm for adult females, characteristically extremely short in stature even when compared with the Yayoi of the same period from northern Kyushu (averaging 163 cm for adult males and 152 cm for adult females). In addition, they practiced the unique customs of removing a single lateral incisor from the upper jaw, and deforming the back of the skull into a flat “cliff-like” shape.

But that is not all. These skeletons were adorned with bracelets and beads taking shell of the south seas as materials, rectangular pendants engraved with geometric designs and dragonhead pendants, etc., rich and varied accessories made of shell whose total reached 44,242 items.

These customs and uses of shell are without parallel in the Japanese archipelago.

The cemetery extended even farther

When an excavation aimed at preserving this site was conducted in 2005-06, the cemetery discovered in 1957-59 at the south end of the sand dune (the southern burial group) was found to extend further on the western side of the dune, and the existence of a cemetery from the same period on the dune’s northern side facing the Hirota river (northern burial group) became newly evident, so the site was found to be of greater extent.

In this excavation 11 burials were discovered in the southern group and 9 in the northern group, and 2,966 items of shell accessories, 92 pieces of pottery, 28 small glass beads, and 15 stone tools were recovered.

Also, at the southern burial group discovered in the 1957-59 investigation, a type of burial characteristic of Tanegashima known as a stone-covered grave was not widely found, but in the northern burial group newly discovered this time nearly all of the burials were stone-covered graves, and characteristics common to other cemeteries of Tanegashima, such as the custom of placing pottery in the grave, were in ample evidence.

The discovery of the northern burial group will provide an important key to the search for the roots of this site’s uses of shell.

(Ishidō Takahiro)