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Jomon Period Artifacts Unearthed At Camp Lester

By: Jackie Glymph

Date Posted: 2000-04-21

Archaeological digging at the Irehara Ruins excavation site on Camp Lester yielded phenomenal and unique findings. Amongst a cache of prehistoric sobata-type pottery, wooden tools, animal bones and seashells, diggers unearthed a wooden comb that is believed to date back 5,000 years to the Jomon period.

Masayuki Yonaha, the Japanese archaeologist who operates under the auspices of the Chatan Town Office's cultural division and who spearheads the dig, works in conjunction with Eric Williams, the U.S. Marine Corp archaeologist for Japan. While Mr. Yonaha leads the Japanese team of diggers, Eric Williams manages all test surveys and excavation on Japanese land leased to the military. He facilitates the local Japanese government in their search for cultural assets. Together Yonaha and Williams have discovered a wooden comb that is believed to be rather distinctive, a rare find. Excited about the find, Hiroe Takamiya, a former archaeology professor of Okinawa Kokusai University remarked, "This comb is of a type that is very specific to Okinawa, very special. It is not even popular on the mainland."

The finding of the comb on December 14 of last year is momentous in that it marks the first time that a comb of this type from the middle Jomon period has been found on Okinawa. According to professor Takamiya, other artifacts from this period have been discovered on the mainland in the Kumamoto prefecture of the southwestern Kyushu island, the oldest pieces dating back 12,000 years. Mr. Yonaha seems to be in agreement. "Much more analysis of the comb needs to be done by specialists before we can speak in certainties about origin, but it is highly likely that the comb is from Kyushu based on the other objects that were found with it. Our goal is to see how many Japanese cultural assets can be found at the excavation site," says Yonaha. The comb will be transported to the mainland where specialists can determine the type of wood used.

Archaeologists have been searching for such Japanese treasures since they began the excavation in 1997. The comb was well-preserved because it was buried in an acidic, boggy mud that kept it insulated from the decaying effects of the air. "The artifacts are very sensitive to humidity and temperature. They are no good if they are allowed to dry out," Yonaha explained.

In addition to the prehistoric comb, Yonaha found broken shards of sobata-type pottery, the most archaeologically ubiquitous Jomon period artifact, just a layer beneath where the comb was discovered. This is the second time that sobata pottery has been found in Okinawa, the first time being in Yomitan in 1975, but Yonaha points out that the 1975 pieces were more representative of an Okinawan style of pottery-making, not a Jomon style.

The Jomon people were hunters, fishers, and foodgatherers whose pottery was created with functionality in mind. Sobata-type pottery carries the characteristic signature style of the Jomon period. The Neolithic age of Japan, called Jomon because of the rope-like designs handcrafted onto much of the pottery of the period, lasted from 8000 B.C. to 300 B.C. Sobata-type pottery was made without a wheel and the mat patterns were created by impressing twisted cord on the surface of the pottery. Not all of Jomon pottery was impressed with twisted cord, however. Certain pots also were decorated with small punctures that Eric Williams referred to as "the punctated style." Moreover, fingernails were sometimes used to make imprints on the pot surface. The pottery vessels were simplistic and sturdy, with wide-rimmed edges and thick, grippable handles for carrying. The most salient fact that stands out to archaeologists is that the Jomon people were not agriculturalists, yet they used stone tools and ceramics.

Yonaha explained a complex system of techniques that allow archaeologists to recognize the distinctive characteristics of artifacts from a certain historical period and avoid misinterpretation. Taken into consideration are color, line pattern, variations in thickness, design, style, and material. Artifacts retrieved from a dig must first be sorted, washed, and numbered to ensure that pieces from the same underground layer are grouped together. Then, dating techniques like radioactive carbon dating are used to establish the era in which an item originated. Carbon dating is based on the principle that all living plants and animals absorb small quantities of the radioactive form of carbon known as carbon 14. When plants and animals die, C14 begins to decay at a calculable rate that makes it easy for specialists to determine how long ago a particular item ceased producing carbon. Absolute chronologies can go back 40,000 years.Yonaha demonstrated that the upward-sloping curvature of the pottery pieces found and the mat-patterned lines indicate that the pottery is indeed sobata. He also noted that the pieces are made of a mineral called andesite, which underscores the notion that the artifacts were brought to Okinawa by a nomadic people since andesite is not indigenous to Okinawa."The finding of these artifacts is a success of the people of Okinawa. It's their history," says Eric Williams. Upon their return to Okinawa, the artifacts will be displayed at a location determined by the Chatan Board of Education.

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