A fairly ordinary parking lot in Japan’s Nara prefecture has revealed the Kofun tomb of an elite person from the ancient era, accidentally uncovered as the area was being cleared to prepare it for shrubbery. The area near the renowned Horyuji temple, under excavation since spring 2022, led to the unearthing of various artifacts, removed from centuries of soil buildup within the stone burial chamber – two iron swords, arrowheads, equestrian-related items, exquisite amber jewelry, and clay pots.

Funazoku Kofun Burial Chamber: Set in Stone, Across Historical Periods

The burial chamber, measuring approximately 3.8 meters (12.6 ft) in length, 1.6 meters (5.24 ft) in width, and 1 meter (3.2 ft) in height, can be traced back to the late 6th century, as per the research conducted by scholars from Nara University and the Ikaruga municipal board of education. Interestingly, the absence of a stone ceiling led the team to speculate that these stones may have been repurposed in the construction of Horyuji temple, which was completed during the early seventh century.

The Horyuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an important temple that led to the development of the Nara period and the rise of Buddhism as a state power. (Milosz Maslanka  / Adobe Stock)

The Horyuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an important temple that led to the development of the Nara period and the rise of Buddhism as a state power. ( Milosz Maslanka   / Adobe Stock)

 “It is possible the ceiling stones were removed for use in the construction of Horyuji temple and the Ikaruga palace, where Prince Shotoku (an influential political leader of the era) lived with his family,” said Naohiro Toyoshima, a professor of archaeology at Nara University and a member of the research team. “At that point, the stone chamber could have been buried along with all those items,” Toyoshima told the  Asahi Shimbun .

Initially unassuming, the circular site, covered in shrubbery, measured approximately 8.5 meters (27.88 ft) in diameter and stood at a height of 1.5 meters (4.92 ft). However, experts from the educational board had harbored long-standing suspicions that this shrubbery concealed an ancient tomb, dubbing it the ‘Funazuka kofun’ (a megalithic tomb or tumulus in Japan, often with a distinctive keyhole-shaped mound) burial mound. Their conjecture was finally validated during the recent excavation, shedding light on this extraordinary historical find.

Nara and Kofun: A Rich Burial Heritage

Nara, a city in Japan with a rich historical and cultural heritage, is home to a collection of burial tombs that offer insights into the region’s ancient past. During the Kofun period, which spanned from the 3rd to the 7th century AD, Nara saw the construction of keyhole-shaped burial mounds known as “kofun” , reports Arkeonews. These are characterized by a circular base connected to a larger, rectangular or trapezoidal structure.

These mounds were primarily used for the interment of elite individuals, including rulers, warriors, and nobility. Notable among Nara’s burial sites is the Ishibutai Kofun in Asuka village, named for its stone construction and dating back to the 6th century. Nara also boasts keyhole-shaped kofun, such as the Ōtsuka Kofun and the Uwanabe Kofun.

Aerial view of the famed Ishibutai Kofun in Nara. (TM/Adobe Stock)

Aerial view of the famed Ishibutai Kofun in Nara. ( TM/Adobe Stock)

The region’s historical connection to Horyuji Temple, founded in the early 7th century and associated with the influential Prince Shotoku, raises some pertinent questions about the repurposing of stones from these burial chambers in the temple’s construction.

Kofun tombs held a specific purpose, acting as the final resting places for individuals of high social status. The deceased were interred within stone or wooden burial chambers, accompanied by an array of valuable grave goods. These offerings included weapons, jewelry, pottery, and personal items, all intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Like other elite burials across the world, the size and complexity were in direct correlation with the status of the deceased, according to Khan Academy .

The construction of kofun was a labor-intensive process – workers meticulously created earthen mounds and arranged stones or crafted wooden burial chambers within them. The keyhole-shaped kofun, known as “zenpo-koen-fun,” are notable for their scale and complexity.

Excavations of these mounds have unearthed insights into burial customs, trade networks, technological advancements, and the hierarchical structure of ancient Japanese communities. They remain a window into the customs and beliefs of early Japanese society.

Top image: The ancient stone burial chamber was found under this shrubbery, found within a parking lot located in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture. Source: Ikaruga Municipal Board of Education

By Sahir Pandey

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