Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/Dolmens in Japan

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THOUGH a large amount of material has been collected and published regarding the megalithic structures of Europe, their classification is in a somewhat unsatisfactory condition.

The misery of the systematist has already made itself apparent in synonyms for a well-known class of monuments—namely, the dolmens. To make the matter more perplexing, structures of quite a different form, and possibly intended for a different purpose, are called by the same name.

A dolmen, generally speaking, consists of an arrangement of stones, few or many in number, supporting one or more stones in such a way as to inclose a cavity beneath. These supporting stones may form the four walls of a chamber, which may or may not be covered by a mound of earth. This chamber may or may not communicate outwardly by a long, narrow gallery (allée couverte). The mound may or may not have one or more rows of stones encircling it. And, finally, the stone structure may be on top of a mound of earth, instead of beneath it!

The simplest form of dolmen, if indeed it can be compared to the more elaborate structures bearing the same name, consists of several standing stones supporting one or more stones which rest upon them horizontally. If the roofing-stones rest with one end upon the ground, then it is called a demi-dolmen. A holed dolmen has one of the supporting stones (which generally forms one side of a square chamber) perforated. The demi-dolmens are not sufficiently specialized to establish any line of distribution. The holed dolmens are found in France and in India, and their curious resemblance has led many to believe in their common origin.

In the mound-covered dolmens a relationship is also seen between

Fig. 1.—General Appearance of Dolmens.

those of Brittany and Scandinavia, in the passageway generally opening toward the south or east and never to the north.[1]

From the mass of observations brought together regarding the dolmens, Mr. Fergusson[2] has prepared a map showing their distribution in the Old World. From this map, dolmens are found to occur in the greatest number in France. They are also found in various parts of Great Britain, more abundantly on the eastern coast of Ireland, western coast of Wales, eastern coast of Scotland, southern portion of Sweden, and in Denmark and Northern Germany; also on the coast of Spain, Portugal, Northern Africa and the western portion of India, Mr. Fergusson, at the date of the publication of his book, asserts that the typical dolmen had not yet been found in America.

The occurrence in different parts of the world of a mound of earth containing a stone vault or chamber can not be looked upon as evidence of a community of origin, because such a structure seems to be a most natural form for the purposes of burial. The same structures

Fig. 2.—Plan of Chamber. The dotted lines show the roofing-stones.

are built to-day in many countries. It is only when it possesses some peculiar feature, like a perforation in one of its wall-stones, or a certain direction in which the passageway opens, that it suggests the idea that a common origin may be ascribed to those possessing these peculiarities.

In traveling across the southern part of Yeso last year, and also in a journey overland from the northern part of Japan to Tokio, I scanned the country carefully for mounds or monuments of any description. At the entrances of towns, one often sees two large mounds between which the road runs. Each mound is often surmounted by a large tree. Though these mounds are old, they are not prehistoric. With the exception of these, I saw nothing that would suggest a monument coming under the names of dolmen, menhir, etc.

There are many burial-mounds in Japan, such, for example, as the large one in Yamato, the grave of Jimmu Tenno, and others which are known to belong to historic periods. It is not improbable that the dolmens to be described belong to the same category.

It is difficult for one who has not traveled in Japan to realize the almost universal state of cultivation the country is under. Having a population of 33,000,000, largely given to agriculture, with an area not exceding 80,000 square miles, one may imagine how few tracts of uncultivated land are found. One is amazed at the sight of ranges of hills and mountains extending for miles, and all terraced to their very summits, for the cultivation of wheat and other products. The lower levels for miles are ditched and diked for rice-cultivation. This is specially marked along the coast bordering the Inland Sea, and along

Fig. 3.—Plan of Chamber. Usual form.

the western coast of Kiushiu from Nagasaki round through Higo to Satsuma. This widespread cultivation has necessitated the leveling or other modifications of large tracts of country, and with this disturbance have probably disappeared many evidences of an ancient race. My attention was first called to the existence of some curious stone structures near Osaka, by Professor Yatabe, of the University of Tokio, who had received a letter from Mr, Ogawa, of the college at Osaka, with the request that I should examine them. This letter, accompanied by a few sketches, was published by Professor Yatabe in a Japanese periodical in Tokio.

On my return from an expedition to the southern portion of the empire, I visited Osaka with my assistant, Mr. Tanada, for the purpose of examining these structures. Mr. Ogawa and Mr. Amakusa, both teachers in the Osaka College, kindly accompanied me and rendered much assistance in the work of exploration. Our time was too limited to do more than make a hasty reconnaissance. We left Osaka early in the morning by jinrikishas (vehicles drawn by coolies), our way leading across extensive rice-fields, and our course directed to a range of low mountains about ten miles away. The country was as flat as a prairie, and had evidently been the floor of the sea at no remote geological period.

The dolmens are found in the villages Hattori Gawa and Kori Gawa, which lie at the base of a low chain of mountains. Having reached Hattori Gawa, we left our jinrikishas, and hunted up the head-man of the village who was to accompany us to the dolmens.

Providing ourselves with candles, we started up a rather steep road, and after a while diverged to the left, down through a tangled ravine—stopping at the door of a temple to examine an old pot which was brought out for our inspection, and which proved to be a piece of Bizen-ware, not very old. Shortly after, we came to a group of dolmens. They are widely scattered in groups of several along the slopes of the mountains for a considerable distance; and their general appearance is not unlike the mounds of Upsala, Sweden, as represented in the frontispiece of Lubbock's "Prehistoric Times."

The structures consist of stone chambers covered by mounds of earth, communications with the chamber being by means of a long, straight, narrow passage—a typical allée couverte. The apices of the mounds are not so pointed as in the figure of Lubbock, and their slopes not so steep (see Fig. 1). They average fifteen to twenty feet in

Fig. 4.—Entrance to Chamber.

height, and fifty to seventy-five feet in diameter. The entrances to most of the chambers are partially obstructed by dirt and stone which have tumbled from the sides and roof of the entrance. The stones composing the walls of the passageway and chamber were not large. In every case, however, the roofing-stones, both of the passageway and chamber, were of very large size. In some cases the entire roof of the chamber consisted of a single stone, and in one case four huge blocks formed the roof of a passageway twenty-eight feet long (see Fig. 2). In every case, too, the stone which covered the passageway adjoining the chamber and forming part of its wall was of great size. The variation in the length of the passageways is due to their partial destruction. The other dimensions are quite uniform, as will be seen by comparing the following measurements of nine chambers, taken at random:

of Chamber.
of Chamber.
of Chamber.
Length of
Breadth of
Height of
14·0 10·6 11·6 28 4·3 5·3
9·0 7·3 8·6 22 5·6 5·8
14·0 11·8 8·9 7 4·5 5·0
13·0 7·0 8·8 20 4·6 5·0
14·0 6·4 8·6 14 4·3 5·0
11·0 5·6 8·7 11 3·6 5·3
12·0 5·8 8·3 *[3] 4·1 5·0
12·4 8·2 12·0 *[4] 4·4 6·0
13·8 7·9 10·2 *[5] 5·0 6·3

The plans vary but little—a single chamber, with the right wall flush with the right wall of the passageway, as in Fig. 3; or else the passageway entering the chamber on a median line, leaving a jog on each side, as in Fig. 2. Mr. Ogawa informed me that he had seen one with a small supplementary chamber leading from the end of the larger chamber.

Fig. 5.—Appearance of Chamber from Passageway.

The passageway was nearly a foot narrower at the top than at the base, and in some cases was slightly narrower at the entrance.

In one case only were there signs that the chamber had been used as a place of residence. A small opening between two of the wall-stones at the base of one of the chambers appeared blackened by fire. By removing the dirt and smaller stones which had tumbled down, I managed with some difficulty to crawl into an irregular flue which was blackened with smoke. This flue communicated with another smaller flue leading back into the chamber (see Fig. 2).

A rude sort of plaster was observed in some of the caves.

The walls of all the caves examined were carefully scrutinized to detect if possible signs of tool-marks or inscriptions, but nothing of the kind was observed. A careful search was made also for relics of some kind, but the floors were equally bare. Trenches were also dug down to the undisturbed soil, but no traces of pottery or implement of any description was found. This result is not surprising, when it is known that during the feudal days these chambers were often used as places of refuge for outlaws or political refugees, and during these times the earlier relics were probably removed or destroyed.

Fig. 6.—Longitudinal Section of Dolmen, showing Chamber and Passageway.

History records the fact that the governors of various provinces in which underground shelters occur ordered the closing of these places as a necessary measure.

No great antiquity can probably be assigned to these structures. That they are over a thousand years old there can be no doubt.[6] I am told by Japanese scholars that their early records call attention to these megalithic chambers existing in different parts of the country. Many of them have been destroyed, either for the purpose of securing the stone they contained for building materials, or to gain ground for cultivation.

In the vicinity of the dolmens and in the paths leading to them, fragments of a hard, blue, unglazed pottery were found; and these fragments are identical with vessels dug up in various parts of the empire, which are regarded by Japanese archæologists as being of Corean origin, from nine to twelve hundred years old.

At the same meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History in which I communicated the results embodied in this paper, Professor F. W. Putnam announced the discovery of chambered mounds in

Fig. 7.—Showing Arrangement of Stones in Sidewall of Chamber. Length, 14 feet; height, 11 feet 6 inches. The dotted line to the right shows roof of passageway.

America, and communicated the following, which is taken from advance sheets of the "Proceedings" of that Society:

These chambered mounds are situated in the eastern part of Clay County, Missouri, and form a large group on both sides of the Missouri River. The chambers are, in the three opened by Mr. Curtiss, about eight feet square, and from four and a half to five feet high, each chamber having a passageway several feet in length and two in width, leading from the southern side, and opening on the edge of the mound formed by covering the chamber and passageway with earth. The walls of the chambered passages were about two feet thick, vertical, and well made of stones which were evenly laid, without clay or mortar of any kind. The top of one of the chambers had a covering of large, flat rocks, but the others seem to have been closed over with wood. The chambers were filled with clay which had been burned, and appeared as if it had fallen in from above. The inside walls of the chambers also showed signs of fire. Under the burned clay, in each chamber, were found the remains of several human skeletons, all of which had been burned to such an extent as to leave but small fragments of the bones, which were mixed with the ashes and charcoal. Mr. Curtiss thought that in one chamber he found the remains of five skeletons and in another thirteen. With these skeletons there were a few flint implements and minute fragments of vessels of clay.

A large mound near the chambered mounds was also opened, and in this no chambers were found. Neither had the bodies been burned. This mound proved remarkably rich in large flint implements, and also contained well-made pottery, and a peculiar "gorget" of red stone. The connection of the people who placed the ashes of their dead in the stone chambers with those who buried their dead in the earth-mounds is, of course, yet to be determined.

  1. Lubbock, "Prehistoric Times," p. 124.
  2. Fergusson, "Rude Stone Monuments," 1872.
  3. Passageway partially destroyed. Measurement in feet and inches.
  4. Passageway partially destroyed. Measurement in feet and inches.
  5. Passageway partially destroyed. Measurement in feet and inches.
  6. In Fergusson's work, already alluded to, there is figured a dolmen of Uby, Scandinavia, page 311, and Antiquera, Spain, page 383, which resemble in many features the dolmens near Osaka. Jewitt also, in his work entitled "Grave-Mounds and their Contents," figures the dolmen of New Grange, Meath, Ireland, page 57, and the cairn of Howth, Ireland, page 58, which again recall similar features to those of the dolmens described in this article. In the cairn of Howth the passageway is twenty-seven feet long.