Kochi: Clay figure sheds light on old tattoo customs

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A clay head is seen with four lines carved on the cheeks to represent tattoos.It was found at the Kitaji site, right, in Konan, Kochi Prefecture.

KONAN, Kochi — The head of a clay figurine with four lines carved into its cheeks to represent tattoos was found at an ancient archaeological site in a city on Shikoku.

According to the city’s board of education, which announced the discovery in July, the “tattooed figurine” was found at a Yayoi period (third century B.C. to the third century A.D.) site called Kitaji in Konan, Kochi Prefecture.

The figurine’s body is missing, and the face is thumb-sized at 2.3 centimeters wide, 4.6 centimeters tall and 2.7 centimeters thick, with four tattoo lines inscribed on each cheek. Judging from the shape of the head, it is believed to represent a woman.

“The model may have been a woman familiar to the artist, but it suggests that people considered women ancestral deities and gave them extremely high status,” said Hideji Haruna, a professor emeritus at the National Museum of Japanese History.

Clay figurines similar to this one have been excavated from archaeological sites in Japan before. At another site of the same period in Kagawa Prefecture, also in Shikoku, a figurine with two arcs at the mouth was found, but figurines found at Yayoi period sites in the Kinki region do not bear such patterns.

Experts believe that the practice of tattooing remained prevalent for longer in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions.

In addition to the head, many other artifacts have been found at the Kitaji site, including the remains of a circular building 7.4 meters in diameter, the remnants of six houses, including a pit dwelling surrounded by a ditch that encloses 4.9 square meters, and a stone spear. More recently, earthenware, a stone knife and an ax were also found.