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Skeletal remains of over 1,500 people unearthed at Osaka site reveal city's past

The excavated site of Umedahaka is seen in this Aug. 12, 2020, photo taken in Kita Ward, Osaka. A number of circular spots where people were buried are seen. The stone wall marks the gravesite's southern edge. The excavation did originally go much further, but after completing the surveys, those involved re-buried many of the holes. (Mainichi/Kensuke Yaoi)

OSAKA -- The buried skeletal remains of over 1,500 people originating from the Edo (1603-1868) to Meiji (1868-1912) periods have been found at a site north of JR Osaka Station earmarked for redevelopment, local cultural bodies announced on Aug. 13.

    The graves were found during an excavation survey on the former site of the "Umedahaka" burial ground that stands in the Umekita redevelopment area north of JR Osaka Station, in the city's Kita Ward. The surveys are being managed by the Osaka Municipal Board of Education and the Osaka City Cultural Properties Association. It is the largest single discovery of burial remains in the city, and is an uncommon find even nationally. The graves appear to have belonged to common people, and their bones will be investigated and details on the funereal culture and living style of the time analyzed.

    The Umedahaka originates in the early Edo period, when graves that used to be located in the Tenma area were gathered in around an area south of what is now Osaka Station. It's thought that after that time it was shifted to its present location in the southwestern part of Umekita. It was one of Osaka's seven gravesites, and even made appearances in contemporary Joruri musical dramas by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, such as "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki" and "The Love Suicides at Amijima."

    The excavation survey began in tandem with works to redevelop the area, and checks carried out between February and June 2017 found stone walls on the northern and southern edges of the gravesite, and the remains of about 200 buried individuals. The investigation starting September 2019 dug what workers believed to be the eastern half of the burial ground, which was apparently in a reverse L-shape with the north at its top, and found the eastern edge's stone wall. Some of the dead within the grounds had been buried in wooden tubs, square wooden coffins or in funeral urns, while others were buried after cremation.

    A "nishukin" gold coin used as a burial item and which was dug up during the survey is seen in Kita Ward, Osaka, on Aug. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Kensuke Yaoi)

    The northern side of the gravesite is separated by a stone wall and is a step lower. There were many areas there where people were simply buried under the soil, or multiple individuals were laid to rest in the same hole. A person in charge of the excavation speculated, "Perhaps this section was used to bury people who had all died at once from diseases, among other things."

    Among the items buried with the people were beads, six mon coins, traditional smoking pipes, earthen dolls, gold coins and other goods. The results of the most recent survey reportedly show that the gravesite was in use from around the end of the Edo period to about the third decade of the Meiji era. Its move from the area south of the station to its present location had been thought to have taken place in the 1680s, but now the possibility has emerged that the remains were kept at another site between those periods.

    Professor Shinichi Sagawa, a member of Osaka Ohtani University's Department of History and Culture and an expert in burial archeology, said, "There are numerous examples of Edo period gravesite surveys in Tokyo, but an investigation of this scale is very uncommon. That the graves were concentrated together is characteristic of cities, and for such a large site to have been developed over a short period of time suggests this couldn't be a farming village."

    Items offered at burials, including miniature plates and pots, are seen in Osaka's Kita Ward on Aug. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Kensuke Yaoi)

    The buried appear to have been ordinary people living in the downtown area around Osaka Castle and surrounding neighborhoods. The results of bone analysis from the most recent survey have yet to be released, but the previous investigation's results showed that the average age range of those buried was their 30s, and there were reportedly many children's remains found, too.

    According to Mikiko Abe, an anthropology expert at the Abe animal archeology research center, lesions primarily concentrated on the limbs were visible on close to 30% of buried individuals, and it's possible some of them suffered with syphilis and bone tumors.

    A previously surveyed collection of the remains of some 100 people at Sendaiji ruins, in the Osaka Prefecture city of Ibaraki, found that they had a higher average age, and there were reportedly no bone lesions. Abe said, "I was surprised at how different the results were from the city and rural villages. By analyzing the bones found this time, and matching them with historical documents and other contemporary evidence, perhaps we'll be able to get a better sense of what Osaka was like in the Edo period."

    The current excavation survey is expected to continue until the end of August. The area being worked on is not open to the general public.

    Items offered at burials that were dug up during the survey, including a mon coin and a traditional smoking pipe, are seen in Osaka's Kita Ward on Aug. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Kensuke Yaoi)

    (Japanese original by Kensuke Yaoi, Osaka City News Department)

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