Friday 6 October 2023

Octopus dreams: Japan, Stonehenge, Knossos ~ by Lesley Downer

takotsubo ya                 Octopus pot
hakanaki yume o          Fleeting dreams
natsu no tsuki               Beneath the summer moon

                                                    Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694)

Minoan octopus vase,
around 1500 BC

Husband (in octopus tee
shirt) meets dogū at the
Heraklion Archaeological
Cultural echoes spring up tentacle-like in the most unexpected of places. Japan and Stonehenge, Japan and Knossos - who would have thought it?

This summer there have been exhibitions at Stonehenge and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete, celebrating the parallels between the marvellous Jōmon culture of Japan and these two very distant yet in surprising ways not dissimilar island cultures. I was lucky enough to visit both.

Jōmon flame pot at 
Heraklion Archaeological
Museum (3000 - 2000 BC)

Jōmon - prosperous hunter-gatherers and the world's first potters
Fifteen thousand years ago the world was engulfed in an ice age. Much of the earth’s water had solidified into ice and sea levels had fallen by several hundred feet. What are now the islands of Japan were part of mainland Asia, connected to present day Siberia and Korea by vast tracts of countryside, plains and hills. It was cold and stormy. Huge long-tusked long-haired ‘Naumann’s’ elephants lumbered around, along with giant deer, horses, tigers, brown bears and wolves, trailed by hardy nomadic people looking for animals to hunt and fruit and vegetables to forage.

Around 14,500 BC, long before anyone else thought of doing so (except possibly the Chinese), some of these people took to moulding the clayey soil and making it into small pots, useful for carrying grain. This was a quite extraordinary development; pots are heavy to lug around when you’re on the move. Millennia later these nomads came to be called Jōmon - ‘rope design’ - after the patterns they impressed on their pots.
Jōmon flame pot at
Circles of Stone
at Stonehenge

Then temperatures began to rise. The ice melted and the sea levels rose, turning what had been the extreme edge of the Asian continent into a string of islands. The weather turned balmy. The descendents of those hardy nomads found themselves in a Garden of Eden, enjoying a lush temperate climate. Most lived not far from the sea where fish and seafood could be snatched straight from the water, collected or speared. 

There were mountains where animals roamed and forests overflowing with roots, fruits, leaves and berries. The Jōmon knew about farming; their neighbours across the water in Korea were farmers. But they themselves didn’t need to break their backs hoeing the soil day and night, for they had abundant food all around them. Most peoples didn’t settle down until the advent of farming; but these hunter-gatherers were so prosperous that many stopped wandering and formed communities.

dogū at Heraklion
Life was so easy that they didn’t need to send everyone out hunting and foraging. Specialist trades developed. Artisans stayed home and built houses or made pots. By now they were using the pots for cooking and serving large communal feasts. And the pots they made became bigger and bigger and more and more gloriously elaborate.

One settlement, at Sannai Maruyama in the far north of the main island, present day Honshu, made up of 700 large thatched houses built around fire pits, was occupied for 1500 years, from 3500 to 2000 BC. The inhabitants dined on mackerel, yellowtail, tuna, salmon, shark and shellfish from the sea, rivers and lagoons, and deer and boar which they hunted with dogs and with stone arrowheads glued to wooden shafts. They ate chestnuts, acorns, walnuts, wild grapes, kiwi fruit, gourds and beans and hunted rabbits and flying squirrels for their warm fur.

Ōyu stone circles
And from 2500 BC to 300 BC they also made amazing figurines - dogū. These were mostly female and may have represented an earth goddess or were used in fertility or healing rituals.

Some 2000 years down the line, these communities began to break up. Some of these smaller communities built stone circles. Around 2200 to 1700 BC, at Ōyu and Isedotai, not too far from Sannai Maruyama, people carried stones from nearby river beds and laid them out with great precision in concentric circles. 

Ōyu stone circles
Most were laid flat with standing stones in the centre that aligned with pillars at the outer edges to mark the sunrise at the summer solstice and made it possible to calculate the winter solstice and the spring equinox and the movements of the sun. Here people gathered to carry out seasonal ceremonies, conduct rituals and bury their dead.

Stone circles: the Stonehenge builders and the Jōmon
Around the same time, 3000 to 2500 BC, on another small island, Neolithic farmers were dragging massively heavy bluestones 180 miles, 290 kilometres, from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain. 

These two cultures on opposite sides of the globe had no contact between them yet had striking similarities. Both made stone circles, used flaked stone tools, had huge feasts and made beautiful pots. Circles of Stone, a wonderful exhibition at Stonehenge which closed on September 3rd, spotlit these cultures.

While the Jōmon were fishermen, hunters and gatherers, in Britain the weather was far less clement and life as a huntergatherer was rough. Around 4000 BC people started farming. The Stonehenge builders cultivated wheat and barley and had cattle, pigs and sheep. They ate beef and roasted pigs over open fires including piglets, which they ate at midwinter. They also gathered wild foods like their Japanese contemporaries.

They used far bigger stones for their stone circles and stood them upright with lintels resting on the top, akin to the torii gate at a Shinto shrine. Like the Jōmon stone circles they were laid out with great care. 

Minoan and Jōmon figures

Both the Stonehenge builders and the Jōmon, it seems, followed and celebrated the passage of the sun, particularly during the summer solstice, and gathered at these stone circles at key times in the annual calendar for festival and rituals. But the Stonehenge builders did not make human figures like the Jōmon dogū.

島国 shima guni, island countries: the Minoans and the Jōmon
The Minoans developed their civilisation a few millennia later, between about 2000 and 1000 BC. They didn’t build stone circles but huge and splendid palaces painted with frescoes. But as an island nation they had much in common with the Jōmon, who were still thriving across the world in Japan. Legacies of Beauty: Archaeological Treasures from Japan, a wonderful exhibition at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum which closed on September 24th, celebrates the parallels.

Minoan and Japanese haniwa 
horses (6th century AD)

The Stonehenge builders, the Jōmon and the Minoans were all island dwellers. The Japanese call it shima guni, 島国. Wherever you are the sea is never far away. You are well aware of the rest of the world out there and of cultural developments outside your own small community. Both the Minoans and the Jōmon traded extensively. The Jōmon traded with Hokkaido, Korea and China while the Minoans were the centre of an extensive trade network crisscrossing the Eastern Mediterranean.

Both cultures celebrated the sea. Octopuses coil their tentacles across Minoan pots while the triton shell became an essential religious implement in Japan. And both created images of life-nurturing women, probably used in prayers for safe childbirth and fertility.
Minoan goddess

For all their creativity all these cultures died out, leaving ruins large and small, as will no doubt happen to us too.

For more on the Jōmon there’s a wonderful British Museum catalogue, The Power of Dogu, Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan, edited by Simon Kaner. You can also see Jōmon pots at the British Museum.

The Jōmon also feature all too briefly in my The Shortest History of Japan, to be published next June.

Circles of Stone ran from September 30 2022 to September 3rd 2023 at the Stonehenge Visitors’ Centre

Legacies of Beauty: Archaeological Treasures from Japan was at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum from June 2nd 2023 to Sunday September 24th 2023

The pictures of the Ōyu stone circles are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are by me, taken at the two exhibitions, at Stonehenge and Heraklion.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more see

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