Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan

  • 5,000 year-old ‘Flame Pot’ leaves Japan for first time for display at Stonehenge.
  • Our new exhibition reveals remarkable parallels between prehistoric cultures 6,000 miles apart.

A new exhibition at Stonehenge will feature ancient Japanese artefacts – none of which have been displayed in Britain before – including a 5,000 year-old Jomon Flame Pot. ‘Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan’ is Britain’s first ever exhibition about Japanese stone circles, and through over 80 objects it will tell the remarkable story of prehistoric cultures six thousand miles apart.

The star of the show the ‘Flame Pot’ is designated in Japan as a national treasure and is a highly decorated type of Jomon ceramic made in central Japan about 5,000 years ago. The Jomon period in Japan spanned the European Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods put together and the pot’s fantastical shape evokes blazing flames, flowing water, or perhaps the crests of cockerels. This is the first time it has gone on display outside Japan. Also featured will be fragments of exquisite clay figurines, known as dogu in Japanese. These have been found at Jomon settlements and stone circles and it has been suggested they may have represented earth goddesses or spirits, for use in fertility or healing rituals. It is believed that many dogu were intentionally broken and scattered during ceremonies.
The exhibition also explores more recent connections between Stonehenge and Japan through the art of Japanese woodblock printer Yoshijiro Urushibara who worked in Britain in the 1920s and British archaeologist William Gowland. Gowland used the techniques he had learnt in Japan to influence the way in which he carried out excavations and interpreted the evidence at Stonehenge at the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Allfrey, Senior Curator for English Heritage said: “Exploring what is happening elsewhere in the prehistoric world is key to understanding the significance of Stonehenge. It’s tantalising to look at what these extraordinary objects from Japan tell us about the similarities between these communities who, while thousands of miles apart, were perhaps ideologically closer than one might imagine. Equally intriguing is the fact that William Gowland’s experience working on archaeological sites in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century helped him to develop the first scientific study of Stonehenge and to formulate new theories about the building of Stonehenge and its alignment with the sun. We are thrilled to tell the story of this extraordinary place and time, and hope to bring a little bit of Japanese inspiration and wonder to the visitor centre at Stonehenge.”

Simon Kaner, Executive Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures and Director of the Centre for Japanese Studies at the University of East Anglia said: “Circles of Stone opens just as Japan makes tentative moves to open up to overseas tourists following the pandemic. After over two years of being largely isolated from the outside world, this exhibition presents little known aspects of Japanese archaeology that demonstrate similarity and equally intriguing diversity at either end of Eurasia. Creating the exhibition has provided the opportunity to re-confirm networks between British and Japanese specialists. In that vein it also explores some fascinating links between British and Japanese archaeology over more than 100 years.”

Despite no evidence for contact at the time, Japan and both Britain and Ireland have fascinating prehistoric pasts, with a number of surprising parallels. Both are island archipelagos of similar size, flanking the Eurasian landmass at roughly the same latitude. This means that they have similar climates and available natural resources, which people exploited and adapted to create flourishing communities with distinct ritual and ceremonial practices. People in these areas were building stone circles, making elaborate pots and using flaked stone tools at the same time.

The exhibition is a partnership project with the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures at the University of East Anglia. English Heritage is grateful to the lenders from across Japan and the UK for lending these extraordinary objects, and for the generous support of the Ishibashi Foundation. Admission to the exhibition will be free to Stonehenge ticket holders, English Heritage and National Trust England members and Local Resident Pass holders, as well as education groups.

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