Thousands of years ago—and thousands of miles apart—the people of what are now Britain and Japan both created elaborate stone circles set up to interact with the solstices and to house remains of the dead.
A new exhibition at Stonehenge highlights compelling parallels between English and Japanese cultures during the Neolithic and Jōmon eras. Though they never interacted with each other, the two cultures seemed to have shared a lot in common—from stone circles to elaborate pottery to rituals connected to the sun.
“Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan,” which opens today, explores those similarities through some 80 items from the Japanese Jōmon period, many of which have never before been on view outside Japan.
“To understand the significance of Stonehenge, we have to understand what is happening elsewhere in the world in prehistory,” Susan Greaney, a historian with English Heritage and a curator for the exhibition, tells the Guardian’s Steven Morris. “Although there was obviously no contact between Japan and Britain at this time, there are surprising parallels.”
Consider, for example, the Japanese stone circles from Ōyu and Isedotai in northern Japan. While not the imposing monoliths of Stonehenge, the two circles, made of thousands of smooth river stones, line up with the sun during the summer and winter solstices, and they were both used in burial rites. And for both monuments, collecting materials and completing construction would have taken enormous community effort.
“Of course they couldn’t possibly have any idea what each other was doing,” Martin Allfrey, senior curator for English Heritage, tells the Guardian. “But it is tantalizing to look at what these extraordinary objects from Japan tell us about the similarities between these communities who were perhaps ideologically closer than one might imagine. Exploring what is happening elsewhere in the prehistoric world is key to understanding the significance of Stonehenge.”
The similarities could also be related to topography: Japan and the United Kingdom are along the same latitude, sharing a similar climate and access to natural resources. But while the Neolithic people living near Stonehenge were farmers, the people of the Jōmon period constructing stone circles in northern Japan were fishers and hunter-gatherers.
The Salisbury exhibition will also display items found at Ōyu and Isedotai that are unique to Japanese culture, such as clay mushroom sculptures, perhaps suggesting an interest “in the mind-altering properties of fungi,” and clay figurines called dogū, which might have been used for fertility and healing rituals, per the Guardian.
Also on display is a clay cooking pot, which was hand-sculpted to mimic flames and likely used to cook fish stew. “Imagine sitting around the fireplace as a meal bubbled away in this,” says Simon Kaner, executive director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, to the Guardian. “It must have cast the most extraordinary shadows.”
“Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan” is on view at Stonehenge through August 2023.