Evidence for changes in society can often be recognised by archaeologists interested in what is known as the social archaeology of the societies whose remains they study. In the Japanese archipelago, major social changes associated with the development of the first state-level society occurred during the Yayoi and Kofun periods, between the third and eighth centuries AD. This section explores how these social changes can be detected through studying burials and settlements, in particular focusing on where and how newly emerging elite classes of people lived, and how they were treated after death. The Japanese evidence is of great interest in this regard – as it includes some of the largest burial monuments anywhere in the world, and a Japanese version of Pompei, a 6th century landscape buried beneath debris from a massive volcanic eruption.
The term kofun means ‘old [ko] tomb [fun]’, and refers to the so-called mounded tombs, or burial mounds, built in Japan from 250 AD to the end of the 7th century, when burial was replaced by cremation with the advent of Buddhism. Some estimates suggest that up to 100,000 such burial mounds were constructed across Japan, from Kyushu to northern Honshu, during these centuries. The largest of these tombs were truly monumental. The great tomb of Daisenyama, considered to the tomb of the 5th century Emperor Nintoku, was 486 meters long, had a distinctive ‘keyhole’ plan (looking like a modern western-style keyhole when viewed from above), and was surrounded by several wide moats. The smallest burial mounds measured just a few metres across. The burials in the chamber were often accompanied by grave goods. The size of the mound and the richness of the goods tell us that these were the burials of the social elite of the time.
The shape of the mound varies. Some kofun are square (hofun), some circular (empun) and other have a keyhole shape (zempo-koen-fun in Japanese) with a round mound joined to a square flared section. The mounds were sometimes covered with sepcial cladding stones (fukiishi); either for decoration to prevent the mound from collapsing. Larger keyhole mounds would often have clay figures (haniwa) set up on terraces along the sides of the mound and on top of the mound. This mound type first appeared in the Yamato region in the south-eastern part of the Nara basin.
Chiefs and commoners
Many archaeologists believe that residences of the community were separated from the residences of the chiefs. These may be separate farms in the area around the residence or in separate parts of the same settlement. Kofun burial mounds would be some distance away from the settlements.