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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Taking a New Approach to Traditional Archaeology

Ryuzaburo Takahashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University, Director of Prehistoric Archaeology Research Institute

Change from “objects” to “events.”

In my early student days at School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, I put hard work into my theoretical economics and international finance studies in order to become an elite businessman (laughing). But at the time of graduating, new jobs were scarce and I couldn't find employment. I knew that the School of Humanities and Social Sciences had started a graduate course in archaeology that year, so I, having been in the archaeological club, made a 180 degree career turnaround and decided to enter the archaeology course. Although my family was against the idea, surprisingly, my father spoke up for me in saying, “I can't see too much problem in having one like that in the family.”

Archaeology is the study of unearthing buried cultural properties such as ancient ruins, finding out what era they belonged to and investigating the characteristics of that time. By painstakingly putting the finer details together, our main research activities involve placing forms of pottery, changes in migration patterns and funeral rites etc, into their appropriate position of the era and region. The true value of archaeology lies in being able to take a tiny fragment of pottery, determining what era it belonged to, extracting detailed information on what use and function it had, and then recreating conditions from that era. The basic stance of archaeology is “ask objects of the time about events of the time.”

“The Last Flower” of the Jomon period, Kameoka pottery. (Excavated at the Hosono Excavation Site in Aomori Prefecture. Now stored at Waseda University's Aizu Museum.)

Japan, which has reached this ultimate level in archaeology, can be said to be a world leader in archaeological research. In my student days, the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Education had top class archaeology professors among their ranks, and I was extremely lucky to be able to study in that environment. I could completely immerse myself in traditional archaeological research for the 20 years from my 20s to my 40s, and at graduate school I researched Kamegaoka pottery, a beautiful type of Jomon pottery with a delicate, yet complicated pattern and lacquered finish.

It is said that there are about 1000 forms of pottery from the Jomon period which stretched over 12-13 thousand years. Kamegaoka pottery comes from the late Jomon period and is called “The Last Flower.” While certainly possessing crafted beauty, the way it was used is unbelievable. Regardless of the time and effort put into making it, there are no indications that it had a practical purpose, and was an object “to be simply thrown away.” We know that Kamegaoka pottery was made all over the Tohoku region, but the problem is “why” was this pottery made if it was only to be thrown away?

Actually, through traditional archaeological methods, we can not provide a clear answer as to “why.” Archaeology has its limits in this respect. To understand “why,” we don't just look at unearthed relics, but we must also investigate customs and society of the time. In other words, not just look at the “objects,” but also the “events” in the background.

Toward an Ethno-Archaeology Approach

“Series: Modern Archaeology 6 Village and Society Archaeology” Edited and authored by Ryuzaburo Takahashi (Asakura Shoten, 2001)

To counter the limitations of traditional archaeology, a new trend, centered in North America and Europe, called “Process Archaeology” or “New Archaeology” emerged in the 1970s. Dealing in the fields of ethno-archaeology and experimental archaeology, as the name suggests, there was a movement towards interdisciplinary unification of research in ethnology, anthropology and archaeology. Taking an interest in this myself, I promptly started watching these new trends taking place overseas, and in the 1990s introduced a serious approach toward ethno-archaeology in my own research activities.

In the latter half of my 30s, I left Waseda to teach at Kinki University, but there were many prominent Japanese folklore professors there. With support from these professors, every year I visited fishing villages on the Ariake Sea or in Ise Bay to investigate folklore. Without taking a direct approach toward these ancient civilizations, I made my first attempt at looking at current society, , striving to find the fundamental culture which is linked continuously from the present to early-modern times, then to the middle ages and then onto ancient times going beyond history.

As an example, there are still customs from ancient times, such as eating acorns and the slash-and-burn agricultural method, which can still be seen in parts of life in modern-day Japan. Even if major changes have taken place since ancient times, it is possible to find clues by searching for the things that are different as well as things that are common with the present day.

After that, I was employed at Waseda and visited aboriginal ruins on the Queen Charlotte Islands on the Northwestern coast of North America, and conducted ethnographical research. This is because Sugao Yamanouchi, said to be the founding father of Japanese archaeology and a great researcher that Japan can be proud of on an international level, asserted from an early stage that “the clues to Jomon culture lie with the American Indians.” Just as salmon and trout can be caught in eastern Japan but not in the west, in North America there is a boundary near Sacramento dividing the north and south in the same way. He believed clues would appear by adding hard fruits and nuts into the comparisons of the two regions. In my 40s, by starting my research on the lines of Professor Yamanouchi's theories, I aggressively expanded my research with a new approach different from that of traditional archaeology.

For a year, from 1999 to 2000, I took a sabbatical and stayed at Cambridge University in England, and gathered information on research being conducted by Cambridge scholars. The depth of their accumulated societal research was truly impressive. I saw ethnographical research documents which were highly valuable research materials for reconstruction of prehistoric society.

Jomon society is often called a “tribal society” yet to embrace a government-led society. But what exactly is a “tribe”? Japanese archaeology is yet to venture into that area. Through ethnological and anthropological approaches, Cambridge scholars already have many examples which have been accumulated to form their basic knowledge. While I was there, I also read through all the basic documents they had referenced. Using this experience as a base, I returned to Japan and edited a book titled “Village and Society Archaeology” (Asakura Shoten). By citing many overseas documents, I hoped to introduce a new method into Japanese archaeology.

Finding Clues About Jomon Times From Overseas Surveys

Among archaeologists it is believed that the Jomon society was not layered, but an equal society. But in reality, it is impossible to suddenly go from a leaderless society to a governed one. With an “evolutionary society” way of thinking, there should be a finely stepped process to a government-led system, even in the tribal society of the Jomon. Canada's Professor B. Hayden labeled this process a “transegalitarian society,” meaning a society with evolutionary processes.

To research this process, I adopted ethno-archaeological techniques and conducted research in Papua New Guinea. I devised a provisional theory that Jomon tribal society had certain types of leaders. The “Big Man,” who had the ability to build courteous relationships and accumulate wealth, and the “Great Man,” who made an art form of his hunting skills and etiquette knowledge, are actual examples of two different types of leader reported to have existed in Papua New Guinea which I went to investigate.

Surveying in Papua New Guinea

The existence of “Big Man” is interesting. An ambitious leader who gathered riches from his family and generously passed them on to outsiders in order to enhance his own status. There were numerous Big Men in competition with each other. He distinguished himself by earning a reputation through generous donations and, by building a band of supporters, was able to command a position as a regional leader. But if he failed in distributing the wealth among his backers, he would lose general support and his time as leader would be short-lived. It is said that the Big Man played an important role in the evolution of society.

Then why was Kamegaoka pottery made “only to be thrown away”? It may have something in common with the relationship of expression of rank and the openhanded attitude of leaders. In North American Indian folklore there is a ritual called Potlatch, where wasteful behavior takes place. Here, they smash and dispose of commodities in an ostentatious manner in front of their guests. There was also rivalry in potlatch. By looking at this example, we can see some “clues” into Kamegaoka pottery. By making assumptions about Jomon tribal society ways, the ways of the leaders, and the ways of courteous rituals and rites, I think the first answers to the “why” questions of Jomon pottery will become clearer.

Establishment of an Archaeologist Development Program.

Starting in 2007, our university was selected for the “meeting the needs of adult retraining education promotion program,” commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and established the “Archaeologist Development program.” Targeting workers on sites of buried cultural properties, we offer three courses for adults. The Career-Up Course where you can earn level 2 archaeologist qualifications, the Recurrent Course where you can acquire level 1 archaeologist status, and the Management Course where you gain qualifications as a high level archaeologist.

Behind the introduction of this program was the necessity to guarantee social transparency by raising specialists on-site and awarding with qualifications. My former students who majored in archaeology are now employed in prefectural and municipal boards of education and are spearheading administrative excavation efforts. But at the administrative sites they are only being recognized as mere “technicians.” To recognize them as “specialists, in addition to specialist archaeological knowledge they must also acquire administrative know-how, and it is necessary to award that ability with a qualification.

The period of the government-backed program concluded in 2009. In order to continue operations in the future, we are planning to expand the program by linking up with other universities. Through Waseda's leadership and promotion of these activities, we can elevate people into specialist positions with specialist personnel training, and pass on the value of buried cultural properties to the Japanese people.

Ryuzaburo Takahashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University, Director of Prehistoric Archaeology Research Institute

Born in 1953 in Omachi City, Nagano Prefecture. Left Waseda University's Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences on completion of his doctoral program. Became research associate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Waseda University in 1983 and a fulltime lecturer at Kinki University's Science of Literature Faculty in 1990. In 1994 he became assistant professor before returning to Waseda as assistant professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in 1995, and professor in 1999. He is currently professor of Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University and director of the Prehistoric Archaeology Research Institute. His major is prehistory. His research themes include Kamegaoka pottery, layering processes in Jomon society, Palaeolithic culture in the Nile Basin, and creation and development of livestock farming communities in Africa. Major publications include “Forefront of Jomon Culture Research” (author), “Village and Society Archaeology” (editor and author), “Modern Society Archaeology,” “Jomon Era Societal Archaeology,” and “East Asian History, Ethnology and Archaeology (Asian Research Association Series, Humanities Volume)” (co-editor and author).

Takahashi Laboratory Website

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