UK-Japan collaboration sheds light on early Japanese history

Any readers with an interest in ancient Japan may be drawn to the Gowland Collection, a cross-cultural project between Japan and the UK. The collection consists of artifacts such as ceramics and metal objects retrieved from Japanese burial grounds that are stored at the British Museum, some of which are on display.  It reflects the links between Japan and the UK in the field of Japanese archaeology that were unfolding in the Meiji period, centred on the work of Professor William Gowland (1842-1922).  He was a chemist and metallurgist who, invited by the Japanese Government to serve as an advisor to the Mint in the late 19th century, brought back with him a quantity of highly significant Japanese archaeological objects from the Kofun Period (approx. early 4th to mid-6th century AD) as well as the relevant excavation records. After his return to the UK, he contributed for the excavation records of Stonehenge in 1900.

In March, a Japanese archaeological team visited the British Museum for its annual research on the Gowland Collection. The team, consisting of Professor Kazuo Ichinose (Kyoto Tachibana University), Professor Tetsuro Hishida (Kyoto Prefectural University) and Professor Shoji Morishita (Otemae University), had previously organised a workshop in 2012 supported by the British Museum and the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, after which they had continued and deepened their research based on the collection. The researchers reviewed and investigated a number of small pieces, a process which succeeded in filling gaps in their knowledge stemming from the limitations of the archeological records available in Japan.

The collection, while demonstrating the high standards and scientific methods of such research at the time, also gives a flavour of Gowland’s personality through his meticulous records of what he excavated, even the smallest pieces.  While he was not strictly speaking an archaeologist, he was clearly not without some knowledge of the field at that time as his work bears the hallmark of contemporary European research standards.  At any rate, his methods were quite accurate, as when his surveys are replicated today they show the same results.  Having been invited as an advisor to the Mint, he explored Japanese mines in the course of his work and also visited dolmens and burial grounds on such occasions.
The Japanese team is trying to build up a database for the collection to make the public more aware of Gowland’s work.  It is also noteworthy that, on top of his contribution to archaeology, Gowland is known to have communicated with the pioneering diplomat Sir Ernest Satow (1843-1929) and thus may well have had some input into the emerging Japan-UK relationship.

You can find further details of the collection at: