Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures:
Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan

William Wayne Farris

University of Hawaii Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
In Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures, Farris explores the insights into the history of ancient Japan that are obtained by integrating the archaeological evidence and the written sources. He doesn't attempt a general account, but rather considers four different topics.

Written in China around 280 AD, Chen Shou's History of the Wei Dynasty contains an "Account of the Wa" with a description of a visit to a country called Yamatai, ruled by a female shaman Himiko. This has occasioned a huge amount of speculation by Japanese historians over the last few centuries, with a central debate over whether Yamatai was located in northern Kyushu or the Kinai. Archaeology has uncovered evidence that bears on this, in the form of bronze mirrors and tombs and watchtowers, but not enough to decide the debate. More usefully, it provides general evidence for the way of life of the Yayoi people of early Japan, largely consistent with Chen's account.

Part two turns to the relationship between Korea and Japan in the "Tomb age", from around 300 to 700 AD. Later Japanese sources the Chronicle and Records depict a Japanese state ruling parts of Korea and allying with Pakaeche against Silla; at the other extreme, a "horserider" theory postulates a Korean conquest of Japan. Archaeology documents extensive transfer of technology from Korea, involving iron-working, horse use, weapons, tools, tombs, and more. The processes behind this included trade, plunder by Japanese soldiers, state transfers, and perhaps most importantly migration by Koreans fleeing violence.

The mid-7th through 8th centuries saw the creation of Chinese-style capital cities. Farris describes the archaeological evidence from Naniwa, Otsu and Fujiwara, Nara/Heijo and Kuni, and Nagaoka and Heian; new foundations reused tiles and other building materials from earlier cities, and often remained incomplete for decades. Evidence for demographic decline during the period suggests that labour shortages limited the city-building ambitions of rulers.

Wooden tablets found in increasing numbers over the last half century provide novel information about 7th and 8th century Japan. They shed light on the debate over the 646 Taika Reform code mentioned in The Chronicles of Japan, which probably contained "a kernel of truth". They document the introduction of bureaucracy and an elaborate system of formal court ranks "linking Chinese-style principles of evaluation and promotion to the earlier tradition of hereditary rule". They reveal that the introduction of a Chinese-style tax system was slow and in some cases involved no more than the renaming of existing customs. And they offer some details of the economics of aristocratic households.

The restriction of Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures to four topics allows for a good mix of archaeological detail and broader narrative. It also allows coverage of historiography, and in particular of the changing approaches within Japan to the more controversial topics where archaeology has collided with religious and nationalist traditions.

October 2007

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%T Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures
%S Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan
%A Farris, William Wayne
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0824820304
%P 333pp