6th-century tomb reveals longest sword from ancient Japan (Links with Korea)

The decoration on the hilt of a sword excavated from an ancient tomb in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, is considered the oldest example of ray skin-craft ever found in East Asia [Credit: Ebino city government]

The decoration on the hilt of a sword excavated from an ancient tomb in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, is considered the oldest example of ray skin-craft ever found in East Asia [Credit: Ebino city government]

Textbook-changing discoveries were made after artifacts found in an early sixth-century tomb in the Shimauchi district here in southern Kyushu were examined, rewriting the histories.

The Ebino education board announced Oct. 24 that experts confirmed the two swords found in the underground tunnel tomb designated no. 139 in a burial site, excavated between 2014 and 2015, are both historic findings.

One is the longest sword ever excavated from ancient tombs in Japan, and another’s hilt is covered with ray skin, making it the oldest ray-decorated item found in East Asia.

The swords were placed by skeletal remains in the tomb no. 139, and both are signs of high social status.

“The swords suggest there was a powerful person in southern Kyushu, who would have directly served someone in the upper rank close to the Yamato king, and would have gone overseas in charge of foreign politics,” said Tatsuya Hashimoto, an associate professor of archaeology at Kagoshima University Museum, who collaborated in the research.

The ancient Yamato kingdom once ruled most of the Japanese archipelago in the Kofun Period (third to seventh centuries).

A sword and scabbard found in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, believed to have originally been about 150 centimeters long [Credit: Shunsuke Nakamura]

A sword and scabbard found in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, believed to have originally been about 150 centimeters long [Credit: Shunsuke Nakamura]

The underground tunnel tomb no. 139 is in a style unique to Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures and to the Kofun Period. Many valuable burial accessories such as armor, weapons, and horse harnesses were excavated along with two remains in 2014 and 2015.

The city education board asked the Nara-based Gangoji Institute for Research of Cultural Property to perform conservation work as well as scientific analysis on them.

The cleaning work revealed about 142 cm of another sword with a wooden pommel is remaining.

Researchers say if reconstructed, it would be about 150 cm long in its original condition, making it the longest sword ever excavated from an ancient tomb in Japan.

On top of that, a valuable textile called “tatenishiki,” or warp-patterned brocade, was used to cover around the opening of the scabbard. Only four examples of such a luxurious textile from the same time period had previously been discovered in Japan.

This sword is considered to have been a gift from the Yamato kingdom.

Further analysis showed that one of the longer swords buried in the tomb, which is about 85 centimeters long with a round silver-decorated pommel, has its hilt covered with a granular ray skin, and is the oldest example of ray skin-craft found in East Asia that had been formally examined.

It is thought that the sword was made in the ancient Paekche kingdom of the Korean Peninsula.

By Shunsuke Nakamura

Source: The Asahi Shimbun.


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