Kanai Higashiura Iseki – Remains found of Kofun-Period man wearing armor

11 Dec

Update: HERE.


UPDATE: It was announced on December 21 that additional bones were found approximately 19 meters from the initial find. The new discovery consists of two bones around 20 centimeters long, lying parallel, suggesting they are the remains of arms or legs. It is highly likely that more bodies will come to light as the excavation continues. The most common interpretation of the site is currently that of a ceremony of sorts to placate the fiery mountain. This would dovetail with the administrative and ritual responsibilities suggested to have been held by leaders. 


UPDATE: It was announced on February 23 that fibers and cloth particles were found along the rear left shoulder of the armor — believed to be the remains of a shoulder strap. An iron socketed spearhead (鉄矛) was also found nearby.


It was announced on December 10 that the remains of a Kofun-Period infant and adult male were recovered from the Kanai Higashiura site (金井東裏遺跡; Shibukawa city, Gunma prefecture), buried under a layer of volcanic ash dating to the early-6th century (the Late Kofun Period). While sites buried under volcanic ash have been found previously, this marks the first discovery of Kofun-Period human remains in such a context.

The Kanai Higashiura site provides another “first” for Japan, as well — the adult male is wearing a lamellar suit of armor (kozanekō 小札甲 or keikō 挂甲). Over 600 suits of Kofun-Period armor have been discovered to date, but never before had one been found worn by its owner. Previous finds of suits of armor have all been found from tombs, placed next to their owner as one of the many accompanying burial goods.

Numerous iron arrowheads were also found nearby.

Pictures from the site:


Nearest the man is the armor-wearing individual. To the left is separate piece of armor. Above the armor and behind the researcher is the skull of an infant.


Picture top: Armor and human remains; bottom: piece of armor


Picture left: skull; middle: armor; right: femur


Facing the viewer: femur

Photo credit

The Kanai Higashiura site was buried following the eruption of Harunayama Futatsudake (榛名山二ッ岳; Hr-FA) in the early-6th century (it would erupt again in the mid-6th century). Nearby sites Kuroimine (黒井峯遺跡) and Nakasuji (中筋遺跡) were also affected, their levels of preservation prompting researchers to call them “the Pompeii of Japan.”

The adult male was found face down in the direction of Harunayama. Judging by the angle of his legs, researchers believe he fell forward from a kneeling position.

Several pit dwellings (竪穴住居) from the late-5th century have been found in the area, in addition to the nearby Maruyama Kofun (丸山古墳) and numerous tombs along the Tone River (利根川).

The fact that lamellar armor belonged almost exclusively to the elite in this period gives us a generous clue as we attempt to reconstruct the local history of the region and understand the level of administrative and military control exercised by the central Yamato authorities.

Ichinose Kazuo (一瀬和夫) of Kyoto Tachibana University suggests that the man was perhaps a guard of an elite residence. The fact that he is not wearing a full suit of armor (only protection for his torso and thighs) may imply that he was not on official duty, but rather running for cover with his family. Others, citing the size and nature of tombs bearing similar armor, however, believe the man to have been a local ruler of sorts.

EDIT: I have received questions as to the spatial relationship between the infant and the adult male. When archaeologists found their remains, the male was not clutching the baby. Perhaps the infant was washed away in the pyroclastic flow.

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Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


8 responses to “Kanai Higashiura Iseki – Remains found of Kofun-Period man wearing armor

  1. NE Asia Archaeology

    December 11, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    Fantastic post, Joseph! Keep up the good work. from NE Asia Archaeology

  2. D. Lorenzen

    December 11, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    I only have a passing lay interest in Japanese archaeology, but its great to see your blog back!


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