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From the Earthly to the Celestial: Material Culture and Funerary Practice at Japan's Sixth-Century Fujinoki Kofun


When Fujinoki Kofun was first excavated in 1985, archaeologists discovered that the tomb’s burial chamber and sarcophagus preserved one of the most lavish collections of grave-goods to have been recovered from the Late Kofun period (500-600 CE). Among the excavated artifacts, several works, including the extensive assemblage of ornamental horse-riding equipment, gilt-bronze crown and shoes, and ceremonial swords decorated with bands of gold, silver, and glass inlay, reflect the material extravagance of tumuli constructed for the burial of Japan’s sixth-century ruling elite. Bridging the fields of archaeology and visual culture studies, this dissertation considers the formal design and positional relationships of the Fujinoki artifacts as a means of analyzing mortuary rituals conducted at the site. This study represents a departure from the dominant scholarly discourse on kofun, which approach tumuli primarily as monuments symbolizing regional authority while overlooking the soteriological beliefs that precipitated the creation of tombs.

The modern legal and administrative systems underlying archaeological excavation within Japan have led to an over-emphasis within the field on the collection of empirical site data. These socio-political circumstances have resulted in research on Fujinoki presenting only a limited range of interpretive discourse regarding the site’s greater social and funerary significance. This dissertation, by contrast, adopts a material/visual approach to the examination of excavated materials, presenting an analysis of the tomb’s architecture and grave-good assemblage that specifically engages Fujinoki’s function as a mortuary space. Comparing the site with several nearby tumuli, my investigation situates Fujinoki within a wider regional system of funerary practice spanning the western Nara Basin, and it identifies the specific historical circumstances surrounding the tomb’s production for the concurrent burial of two deceased elites. Through the consideration of the design of the site’s gilt-bronze saddle, and analysis of the work’s symbolic importance in relation to the iconography of mainland mortuary sites and Japan’s eighth-century Chronicles of Japan, I posit that the artifact references a celestial horse whose purpose was to convey the soul of the deceased into the afterlife.

In addition to providing a comprehensive discussion of Fujinoki, this dissertation demonstrates the need for research to further situate archaeological sites within new interpretive narratives. Moving beyond studies that relegate Japan to a passive role in a core-periphery relationship with mainland Asia and reductively classify protohistoric objects as either “native” Japanese or “foreign” imports, I instead contend that the formal design of the Fujinoki grave-goods embody an intersection of multiple cultural traditions. These artifacts reflect the fluid exchange of people and ideas across the Japan Sea and display the integration of both Japanese and mainland derived materials into a funerary system specific to the sixth-century Nara Basin.

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