Spirits of Clay: ceramics figures from Japan and the Balkans

Submitting Institution

University of East Anglia

Unit of Assessment

Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory

Summary Impact Type


Research Subject Area(s)

History and Archaeology: Archaeology, Curatorial and Related Studies, Historical Studies

Download original


Summary of the impact

Research on the significance of prehistoric clay figures of human beings (the first self-conscious expressions of human identity) was presented to the public, through two major exhibitions with associated programming attracting over 200,000 visitors, generating an estimated £5 million of economic activity. The Power of Dogu (British Museum, 10.09.09 - 22.11.09: over 78,000 visitors; Tokyo National Museum, 15.2.09 - 21.02.10: around 120,000 visitors) was followed by Unearthed (UEA, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 22.06.10 - 29.08.10). The project attracted funding from AHRC (£282,000) the Mitsubishi Corporation (£100,000), Japan Foundation (£15,000); Hitachi funded a new online resource in English about Japanese archaeology (£120,000).

Underpinning research

Simon Kaner received his PhD in prehistoric Japanese archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 2004, with a focus on the Jomon period, characterised by its early ceramic vessels and figurines. He has been deputy Director of the Sainsbury Institute for Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC, part of the Sainsbury Institute for Art (SIfA) at UEA) since 2001 and is also Director of the Centre for Japanese Studies at UEA. In 2009 the AHRC awarded Kaner a two-year research grant under the Galleries and Museums Scheme to produce two exhibitions (at the British Museum and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts) about the two major traditions of early representation of the human form in clay, from Japan and the Balkans. Over 18,000 such objects are known from the Jomon period of Japanese archaeology (c.16,500 - 2,500 years ago) and comparable numbers from the Neolithic of the Balkans (some 9,000 - 6,000 years ago). Although both traditions have a long history of research, they have never effectively been worked on as a comparative study nor presented as art objects to the public. This project created an explicitly comparative framework for understanding these objects as art rather than simply archaeological finds and facilitated the generation of new approaches through the cross-fertilisation of two hitherto independent traditions of scholarship, as well as originating new international academic and outreach networks.

The project was devised by Kaner in conjunction with Professor Douglass W. Bailey, one of the leading specialists on figurines, and colleagues from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the British Museum. The project was initiated with a session at the World Archaeology Congress, Intercongress, in Osaka and a workshop at SISJAC in 2006, which was attended by archaeologists, students and others from Japan, UK and Europe. It was agreed that exhibitions with effective public programming (conferences, workshops) would provide the most effective means of engaging a large audience with the three-dimensional representations of the human form in prehistory. As the feedback demonstrated, actual engagement with real objects, including making and handling modern replicas, enhanced understanding and appreciation of the significance of prehistoric figurines both for the general public and specialists. Although such objects are quite well known to archaeologists, they are rarely studied comparatively and their potential appeal has never before been presented to the public on this scale. From the outset we wanted to include not only the prehistoric objects themselves, but also a combination of contemporary art inspired by figurines, and historical materials to help set them in context.

Much of the research involved the identification of suitable material scattered in many local and national museums in Japan and the Balkans, as well as several museum collections in the UK.

Drawing on his recent research and involvement in excavation in Japan, Kaner travelled extensively with the Senior Specialist from the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, Takashi Doi, visiting many lending institutions in Japan in the summer of 2009. He also accompanied Doi to Slovenia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania to meet potential Balkan lenders. The long-standing links between UEA and Albanian archaeology (see Butrint case study) helped significantly in developing the European dimension of the project.

References to the research

Underpinning research and direct outputs:

Simon Kaner: `Ancient inspirations: Jomon artist Ifurai'. Ceramic Review 256: 60-63 (2012)

Simon Kaner: `Place and identity in Jomon Japan' in Structured Worlds: the Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherer Thought and Action, edited by Aubrey Cannon. Sheffield, Equinox Publishing Ltd: 183-203, (2011)

Simon Kaner: `Religion and ritual in the early Japanese archipelago'. In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, edited by Tim Insoll. Oxford University Press: 457-469 (2011)


Simon Kaner `Long-term innovation: the appearance and spread of pottery in the Japanese archipelago' in Ceramics before Farming: the dispersal of pottery among prehistoric Eurasian hunter-gatherers, edited by Peter Jordan and Marek Zvelebil. California, Left Coast Press, 93-120 (2011).

Simon Kaner and Nakamura Oki (eds.) Jomon Reflections: Forager Life and Culture in the Prehistoric Japanese Archipelago by Kobayashi Tatsuo. Oxford, Oxbow Books, 2004

Simon Kaner (ed.) 2009. The Power of Dogu: ceramic figures from ancient Japan. London, British Museum Press. (Reprinted in 2011).

The high quality of the underpinning research is indicated by the wide range of funding organisations continuing to invest in the research and its dissemination. The AHRC Galleries and Museums Scheme was the starting point, but the following demonstrate confidence in the work of the project: British Academy conference grant (£10,000), Mitsubishi (£100,000), Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation (£3000), Henry Moore Foundation (£5000), Japan Foundation (£15,000 in total), International Jomon Culture conference (£7500), ERASMUS (estimated value £3000).

Details of the impact

The interest generated by this project has resulted directly in two major exhibitions receiving 200,000 visitors. Including such things as travel, food, accommodation and direct expenditure on purchases relating to the exhibitions, website development, and the spin-off exhibitions it prompted, the economic activity generated by the project will be in the order of £5 million, especially if the generation of museum gallery installations, sales of related publications and merchandise, newly commissioned art works, and spin-off exhibitions are included. (3,008 copies of The Power of Dogu have been sold by the British Museum and 1,164 copies of Unearthed by Oxbow Books.)

Once the funding was secured from AHRC, we were able to attract additional funding from a number of other sources (including: the International Jomon Culture Conference who funded two Handa Archaeology Fellows for young Japanese archaeologists: Dr Akira Matsuda, who specialised in public archaeology and is now a lecturer at UEA, and Fumihito Nagase, who went on to secure further funding to undertake fieldwork in the Balkans. Archaeologists from the Balkans (Slovenia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania) were encountering the Japanese archaeology and Jomon figurines for the first time. ERASMUS funded a Polish Intern, Magdalena Hamera, who specialised in fashion and was interested in what the figurines could tell us through the representation of clothing and coiffure.

With the involvement of the British Museum we were able to secure the cooperation of the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs (which has responsibility for archaeology) and the Tokyo National Museum, which was also a major lender and hosted a `homecoming' exhibition in January 2010.

The British Museum exhibition featured contemporary Japanese art in the form of manga, and The Power of Dogu exhibition also gave rise to a special exhibition featuring the work of the manga artist Yukinobu Hoshino in the Asahi Room (Room 3), which attracted over 90,000 visitors. It was organised by Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, who had consultative oversight of the project as a whole. Hoshino spent a week in London during the exhibition, resulting in Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure (first serialised in Japan in Big Comics for Men published by Shogakkan, circulation c.10 million, and then published (and subsequently reprinted by the British Museum Press, Yukinobu Hoshino, Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure. London, British Museum Press (2010). The SCVA exhibition also included contemporary art and art specially commissioned for the exhibition. Both exhibitions had public conferences and a series of over 20 public `figurine making workshops', run by Dr Andrew Cochrane, and attended by a wide-range of family groups, teachers and indeed potters. Associated with the SCVA exhibition there was a concurrent show of contemporary art inspired by prehistoric figurines at Gallery 18/21 in the centre or Norwich, and the `Jomon artist' Ifurai presented his own work during a weeklong photomontage at `Fusion', a large scale display in the Norwich Millennium Library. The exhibitions featured widely in the media (Metro, Herald and Tribune, Sunday Telegraph, Japan Times, Balkan newspapers, Radio Norfolk). The project helped raise awareness of other Japanese archaeological materials in the British Museum, in particular a collection of later materials from the kofun period (the Gowland Collection), which was subject to a special documentary by the main Japanese broadcaster, NHK, which involved Simon Kaner, Nicole Rousmaniere and other members of the `dogu team', seen by 10.2 million people in Japan when aired in July 2012.

Other impacts

  • There are now enhanced materials on the websites of both the British Museum and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts which enhance access for public and scholars to these aspects of their collections.
  • Based on the exhibitions, further exhibitions have been held in Japan (Tokyo National Museum, Miho Museum, Akita Prefectural Museum).
  • Drawing on the exhibition a grant has been secured from Hitachi of Europe to develop an English-language online resource about Japanese archaeology and heritage for use in schools in UK and around the world. This is significant as it will for the first time make easily accessible Japanese cultural heritage (one of the greatest but little known such traditions anywhere in the world) in a form of use to teachers within the constraints of their curricula.
  • A grant has been secured from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to hold a public symposium and academic workshop on future agendas for University Museums (one of the justifications for the AHRC grant was to develop connections between the collections at UEA (SCVA) and the British Museum.
  • Building on connections established through the exhibitions, linkages have been created between municipalities in Japan, the Balkans and UK, which will result in educational and other cultural exchanges.
  • Materials from the SCVA exhibition were included in exhibitions in Japan, and one of the featured artists, Sarah Beare, was invited to Japan to take part in public workshops in Aomori and Osaka, which further enhanced the impact of the dogu project for audiences in Japan.

Sources to corroborate the impact

  1. Testimonial from the Honorary Director, Niigata Prefectural Museum of History
  2. Testimonial from a Professor of the Department of Archaeology, University of Tokyo
  3. Testimonial from a Professsor of the Department of Archaeology, Kokugakuin University
  4. Testimonial from the Research Manager at The British Museum
  5. Reviews of the exhibitions Antiquity 84, pp.1172-1176
  6. Web-based materials: see `vodcast' on www.scva.ac.uk
    (Also on YouTube "unearthed: Playing in Time" by Sarah Beare at
  7. Unearthed Figures website http://www.jomonjin.net/unearthed-figures/
  8. The Japan Society: Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure by Yukinobu Hoshino translated by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, Hiromi Uchida and Timothy Clarke http://www.japansociety.org.uk/21792/professor-munakatas-british-museum-adventure-by- yukinobu-hoshino-translated-by-nicole-coolidge-rousmaniere-hiromi-uchida-and-timothy- clarke/
  9. The British Museum - details of past exhibitions:
  10. Tokyo National Museum - details of past exhibitions