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Ancient vessel depicting 'bird-costume shaman' found for 1st time in eastern Japan

This image provided by the Nagano Municipal Board of Education depicts a shaman carrying a dagger-axe.

NAGANO -- An ancient earthenware vessel depicting a figure believed to be a shaman in a bird costume, thought to date back to the later half of the mid-Yayoi period some 2,000 years ago, has been unearthed here, the Nagano Municipal Government announced.

    The vessel was unearthed at the Higashimachi archaeological site that is part of the Nagano ruins in the central Japan prefecture of Nagano. City officials said about 10 earthenware vessels depicting people in bird costumes have previously been discovered across Japan, but this is the first to be discovered in the eastern half of the country.

    Hisayuki Oi, head of the city's center for buried cultural properties, commented, "This is important material indicating there is a possibility that agricultural rites representative of western Japan were held in the Nagano basin."

    The unearthed decorated earthenware vessel dating back to the latter half of the mid-Yayoi period is seen at Nagano City Hall on Nov. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Daisuke Shimabukuro)

    The earthenware vessel measures 42.4 centimeters in height and has a lip measuring 19.7 centimeters across. The bird-costume figure measures 11.5 by 6.4 centimeters, and was drawn with a spatula-type implement. The figure is holding a dagger-axe, an old weapon with a blade set at a right angle to the shaft, in its right hand. The figure's head is missing, but the feather-shaped head ornament the figure is wearing, rising from the neck position, can be seen. The vessel also bears a circular emblem consistent with earthenware dug up in the north of Nagano Prefecture.

    The Nagano ruins comprise a collection of ruins dating from the Jomon period up to the modern era. The Higashimachi ruins where the vessel was found span an area of around 2 hectares. Excavation work at the site began in fiscal 1996. The vessel was unearthed in fragments from the remains of a pit dwelling, and it emerged that the sketch had been etched during the bonding process. Red pigment was found on the vessel, and it is believed that it was originally painted red.

    Over half of the earthenware vessels bearing pictures are said to have been unearthed from the Kinki region in Japan, and such a find in the eastern part of the country is rare. It is believed that the picture was conveyed through the Hokuriku region on the Sea of Japan coast, but the Nagano Municipal Government noted that the figure bears no shield and that the vessel contains a circular emblem -- features setting it apart from those unearthed in the western half of the country.

    A carved image of what is believed to be a shaman in a bird costume is seen on pottery at Nagano City Hall on Nov. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Daisuke Shimabukuro)

    A city official commented, "It's possible that agricultural rites of the kind seen in western Japan developed and became established independently." It is the second such vessel to be discovered in Nagano Prefecture after one depicting a deer was found at the Yanagizawa ruins in the prefectural city of Nakano.

    The vessel will be on public display at an exhibition titled "Watashitachi no Machi no Kokogaku" (Our town's archaeology), at the Nagano City Museum in the city of Nagano from Dec. 4 this year until Feb. 23, 2021.

    (Japanese original by Daisuke Shimabukuro, Nagano Bureau)

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