Sherding for Jomon pottery in Yokohama

In 1983, my family moved from the medieval castle town of Himeji in western Japan to the outskirts of Yokohama. We had also lived in Yokohama for two years after I was born in Tokyo, and my minister father was being transferred back to work at his church’s headquarters in Asahi-ku. We lived in a mouldering compound of American ranch houses built for western missionaries. Constructed 40 years earlier in an era when American missionaries had Japanese maids, the houses even had a small apartment on the other side of the kitchen, behind the garage — a single tiny room with tatami mats and a bathroom with a deep Japanese furo that I sometimes preferred to the American bathtubs elsewhere in the house.

Through the power of satellite photography, I can see my old home, the easternmost house in the row of four toward the center of this screen capture (sent to me by a friend in 2011).

My childhood home, from space

The first thing I learned in Yokohama was to drop my Kansai accent and start talking like the Kanto children around me.

One of the next things I learned was that we lived atop a giant Jōmon midden. A midden is the kitchen scrap-heap of an archaeological site. Like the famous Tells of Middle Eastern archaeology, kitchen middens can grow to enormous proportions over the millennia as humans live near or on top of their growing garbage heap. Shell middens specifically include shellfish remains, but in Japan the term 貝塚 (kaizuka) is used as a general term for various types of archaeological middens, regardless of any evidence of actual shellfish processing at the site.

The Jōmon period (縄文時代) began about 16,000 years ago and lasted until the beginning of the Yayoi period (弥生時代) in about 300 BCE, with the introduction of rice-based agriculture. The Jōmon people made some of the earliest pottery in the world, but despite their sedentary lifestyle in villages and their intensive use of earthenware (土器), they were a predominantly pre-agricultural society of hunter-gatherers. Thus, the Jōmon period is considered transitional between the Paleolithic in Japan (旧石器時代) and the Iron Age Yayoi with their bronze bells, iron swords, and rice paddies.

How did the people of Japan leap from the Paleolithic straight to the Iron Age? The general consensus among archaeologists, geneticists, linguists, physical anthropologists, and historians is that the Jōmon people represent Japan’s aboriginal inhabitants, while the Yayoi people were an immigrant population of East Asians from the mainland, who moved into Japan (probably from Korea, though that is a controversial hypothesis for a variety of reasons) and then pushed out or intermingled with the native population.

Hokkaido, 1976Starting around 2,300 years ago, the Yayoi culture and the later Yamato culture steadily replaced the Jōmon culture, until the Ainu people alive in Hokkaido today remain the last descendants of Japan’s original Jōmon. With the colonization of Hokkaido following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the invasion of the Yamato people across the islands of the Japanese archipelago was finally complete after more than two thousand years.

As I learned myself while attending Japanese elementary school in Yokohama, every Japanese child learns key archaeological details about the Jōmon period. Crafted without a wheel using coiled clay and fired in an open bonfire at fairly low temperatures, Jōmon potters often applied designs to their earthenware by pressing or rolling twine onto the wet clay. This is where the archaeological period gets its name: “Jōmon” means “rope-marked”.

Archaeological sites are so common in the densely populated country that some go unexcavated. Near my home in Yokohama, modern machines with their ever-deeper plowing turned up more and more Jōmon potsherds in each furrow. Nearly every weekend for three years, I scoured the fields for these potsherds, hauling home plastic shopping bags full of broken pieces pressed with the classic, rope-marked pattern of pottery from the Early Jōmon phase (between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago).

A few years after we moved away from Yokohama, on a day when I must have felt particularly bored or lonely, I went through one of my boxes of sherds and managed to assemble a larger section from 6 different pieces. The hours I spent trying to fit potsherds together indicate just how seriously I took my future as an archaeologist.

Jomon potsherds (1)

Every so often in Yokohama, I would find a more substantial potsherd, usually from a thicker vessel with the kinds of beautifully embossed patterns more typical of the Middle and Late Jōmon phases. Given their beauty, these were rare and exciting finds, even if the farmers didn’t seem to think so — they were usually tossed to the edge of the field like troublesome stones.

Jomon potsherd (7)

The vast carrot fields atop the hill to the north of our little American neighborhood yielded the most pottery — from small fragments to large sherds with ornate, swirling patterns.

Jomon potsherd (3)

In the years since a former neighbor emailed me a screenshot of our old houses on Google Maps, a new imaging pass has revealed that our four American-style oddities have been torn down, replaced by a modern neighborhood of over thirty proper Japanese houses. Similarly, the carrot fields to the north of the missionary compound have been replaced by the Wakabadai apartment complex — a convenient, one-hour train ride straight into downtown Tokyo.

Yokohama, 1975I can take a virtual walk along the Tomei Expressway to my old elementary school, and I can even see the shadow of the Japanese lantern where I had my picture taken when I was a baby. As I peruse photos taken from space of the Japanese streets I knew so well, while connected from my living room in Seattle to a global network of computers, it becomes clear how much has changed in just 30 years. Our satellites also look outward, finding unseen planets and revealing a universe of limitless wonder.

Yet, as I hold a 5,000-year-old Jōmon potsherd in my hand, I wonder what we’ve lost beneath all those apartment buildings, the bank, the ramen shop, and the train station with its express service to Shinjuku. What do we destroy when we pave over ten thousand years of history for another hamburger joint?

And how will future archaeologists assess these first layers as they scrape away our present and reveal the past we share with them?