Asuka (Japon) : excavation raises questions about structure on ancient site

Yuya Tanaka

Source -

Asuka 2These pillar holes are evidence of a building unearthed at the “west of Asukadera temple” archaeological site in Asuka, Nara Prefecture. The photo was taken Feb. 23. (Kazushige Kobayashi)

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a mystery building that was erected on the site of an ancient square here that figured large in events during the late sixth century to early eighth century.

Experts are divided about the purpose of the structure that stood in the latter half of the seventh century. But one explanation put forward is that it could have been a banquet hall where dignitaries from remote provinces were wined and dined when Asuka was the political center of power.

This theory ties in with descriptions carried in "Nihon Shoki" (The Chronicles of Japan), the nation's official history book that was completed in the eighth century.

Archaeologists unearthed nine holes that were dug to hold pillars for a large building at the "Square of zelkova trees," according to the board of education of this western village here Feb. 23.

Excavation work at the “west of Asukadera temple” archaeological site has yielded the first hard evidence of remodeling of the ancient square.

It is where two leading figures connived to stage a coup in 645 that brought about the Taika Reforms to cement the power of the imperial court.

Those individuals were Prince Naka-no-Oe, the future Emperor Tenji (626-671), and his friend Nakatomi no Kamatari (614-669). They first got acquainted here during a ball game called “kemari.”

The pillar holes are about 90 centimeters deep and roughly measure 1.2 meters on each side. They were unearthed at the south end of the site, about 120 meters southwest of where the Asukadera temple’s west gate stood.

A permanent, raised-floor building, which measured at least 11 meters from east to west and 6.5 meters from north to south, may have occupied the site, village education board officials said.

The square set the stage for a number of major incidents during the Asuka Period (late sixth century to early eighth century), including the Taika Reforms and the Jinshin War of 672.

It became common practice during the (655-661) reign of Empress Saimei to invite influential figures in remote provinces as well as people from overseas to attend banquets in the square. Nihon Shoki notes that representatives of the Emishi tribe in the far northern Tohoku region and the Hayato tribe in southern Kyushu attended.

The square was almost certainly a multipurpose space,” said Kanekatsu Inokuma, professor emeritus of archaeology with Kyoto Tachibana University. “The building may have been the venue of the banquets or some sort of lodging.”

Masashi Kinoshita, professor emeritus of archaeology with Tokyo Gakugei University, offers another perspective.

The site of the building is located on the edge of the square,” Kinoshita said. “Perhaps the building was a warehouse, considering the way the pillar holes are arranged and other factors. I hope further studies will help elucidate if it has something to do with the square itself or has something to do with a palace that spread to the south of the square.”