While the world was panicking about the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, in March 2021, Aomori Prefecture proudly welcomed another world heritage title.
The Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site (三内丸山遺跡) that completely overturned the understanding of the Jōmon civilization was registered as a part of Jōmon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan (北海道・北東北の縄文遺跡群) as a World Heritage.
Back in 1992, the plan was to turn the Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site (三内丸山遺跡) into a baseball ground. But with more excavation work completed, the massive historical value of this site from the early to middle Jōmon period (around 5,500 to 4,000 years ago) was brought to light.
Currently the largest Jōmon archaeological site in Japan, its size has greatly repainted the image of Jōmon culture that was known thus far.
This old settlement that was determined to exist for around 1,500 years has been a designated National Special Historic Site since 2000. On its vast ground of 50,000 square meters, many relics such as plate-shaped clay figurines, huge wooden pillars, and lacquerware have been excavated. Among them, nearly 2,000 relics were designated as Important Cultural Properties.
The site also gave us some idea of what sort of diet the Jōmon people had. Surprisingly, they enjoyed a variety of food such as sea bream, flounder, and chestnuts!
Other things that were discovered on the site include children’s and adults’ graves, remains of dwellings and large buildings, and even garbage dumps! It does not sound very different from a lifestyle of a rural village nowadays except for the utility connections (´▽｀*).
The History of Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site
The Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site was determined to appear in the second half of the Jōmon period. It is around the same time as Mesopotamian civilization and Egyptian civilization.
At the time, the last ice age ended about 10,000 years prior. The average temperature worldwide was on its way to its peak (which happened around 6,000 years ago). Then, after the peak was reached (2 – 3 temperatures higher than the current average), the earth cooled down rapidly.
As the timing of when the site was abandoned and the timing of when the cool-down period matched almost exactly, this led archaeologists to believe that it was the temperature change that ended the history of the settlement.
The History Leading to the Preservation of the Archaeological Site
Fast track the time to the end of the 20th century. Although it was known that the site was a Jōmon archaeological site, the government wasn’t aware of its scale and historical value. After all, a couple of Jōmon archaeological sites have already been excavated. So the plan at the time was to undertake the excavation work and construction at the same time. The archeological site was to be demolished after records were kept.
As more research on the site has been conducted, specialists started to realize the value of the site. However, a part of the ruins had already been knocked down, and the stand on the third-base side was almost finished. This made the government reluctant to call a stop as a large amount of money was already spent.
What saved the Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site was the discovery of the remains of the large pillar-supported buildings.
The news of the discovery of the remains of some huge wooden structures that were unprecedented in the world spread across Japan in a blink of an eye. This made the public opinion tilted toward preserving the site all at once. Bending to the pressure from around the country, Aomori Prefecture ended the construction of the baseball ground, and the restoration work of the site commenced.
Fortunately, the typical blaming game didn’t happen.
The Scale of Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site
So why didn’t the government of Aomori Prefecture think the site was not valuable enough to preserve it in the first place?
Up until the site’s discovery, it was thought that the people of the Jōmon period formed a settlement with about 50 people. The lifestyle was somewhat nomadic. When there was less prey in the area, they would move to another place.
However, at the Sannai Maruyama Site, it was found that a village of about 500 people lived lasted for about 1,500 years (the existence of a mass grave is proof that they had been living a sedentary life after repeated generational changes). As a side note, the ancient capital of Kyoto, which represents Japan, lasted only for 1,200 years, shorter than the Sannai Maruyama Site.
On top of that, the techniques required to build large pillar-supported buildings are high. This means that the settlement was literally a village where people adopted a cyclical farming lifestyle. For 500 people to live in the same place, a large amount of food was required, which could hardly be secured from continuous hunting. In other words, some sort of farming activities must have taken place.
This hypothesis was later confirmed as further research took place that crops such as rice, buckwheat, perilla, gourd, mung bean, and burdock were cultivated.
The Most Important Feature of Jōmon Civilization
What surprised most people nowadays about the people in the Jōmon period is the lack of traces of conflicts. Unlike the ruins in the Yayoi period afterward, fences and moats that were used for defensive purposes and human bones damaged by arrowheads were rarely excavated from a Jōmon site.
This is probably due to the temperature being more suitable for the reproduction of fish and animals as well as the growing of edible plants. When there was not enough food source, it was made up of simple farming. So there was no reason for the people back then to fight.
What to Do at Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site
On top of strolling around the restored pit-houses and stilt buildings while you examine the relics on display, you can understand the lifestyle back then by joining one of the activities such as making your mini clay figurine!
To participate, please talk to the reception staff on your arrival.
Furthermore, a free guiding tour is taking place on an hourly basis (at 9:15 am, 10 am, 11 am, 12 pm, 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, and 3:30 pm or 4 pm in August and September). If you would like to join, please gather at the entrance hall or the passage leading to the historical site in Sanmaru Museum.
On the other hand, if you would like to stroll around the site by yourself, you can refer to the recommended routes specified on the official website HERE.
Tip: You can utilize their free lockers and luggage storage service if required. Also, prams and wheelchairs can be rented out from the reception.
Important: Although there is a restaurant, there is no vegetarian menu.
Maruyama Special Historical Site’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information
- The site is open from 9 am to 5 pm in general but extends its opening hours to 6 pm during Golden Week and from June to September
- The last admission is 30 minutes before the closing time
- The site is closed on the 4th Monday of each month and from the 30th of December to the 1st of January
- Also, refer to the site’s calendar HERE for other days that the site is scheduled to close for various reasons. If the calendar on the English website isn’t updated, please refer to their Japanese website HERE
- The admission fees are:
- 410 yen for adults
- 200 yen for senior high school and university students
- Free otherwise
- If you are also visiting the Aomori Museum of Art, please show your ticket to get a discount (80 yen off for adults, 40 yen off for students)
- The access information is the same as Aomori Museum of Arts
Find out Where Else to Go in Aomori
Aomori City, the capital of Aomori Prefecture, has a wealth of beautiful nature, such as the Hakkōda mountain ranges and Mutsu Bay. Stunning scenery can be adorned throughout the year. In fall, it is the time to find out your favorite kinds of apples!
The city also has a couple of cultural heritages for you to enjoy a different side of Japanese culture.
For more information, please refer to our article on Aomori!