Saga: Tour of Archaeological Ruins Digs Deeper Digitally

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Visitors tour the Yoshinogari Ruins in Saga Prefecture in October, using a smartphone to obtain information via QR code.

SAGA — Computer graphics and augmented reality (AR) were used to help visitors better understand excavated objects in a recent tour to explore the Yoshinogari Ruins, a large Yayoi period (300 B.C.-A.D. 300) settlement site in Saga Prefecture. The settlement is attracting attention as it might be related to the Yamatai Kingdom, one of the greatest mysteries of Japan’s ancient history.

Courtesy of the Saga prefectural government
3D image of a reconstructed stone coffin.

In the tour called the “Open-Air Museum,” which was held this autumn until Dec. 19, 3D images of unearthed objects, including a coffin and burial jars, were shown to visitors along with the actual dig site. Using AR technology, visitors were able to see museum staff superimposed on images of the site and providing detailed explanations.

Courtesy of the Saga prefectural government
An excavation staff member appears on a screen and explains the excavation site.

The Saga prefectural government organized the digital tour with hopes to utilize the latest technologies in the future, and the event attracted people from inside and outside the prefecture.

“We’d like to consider using technology as a new way to display the ruins so that people can become more familiar with and interested in them,” a prefectural official said.

In mid-October, a workshop was held in the ruin’s 4,000-square-meter “mysterious area,” which had long been unexcavated due to the presence of a shrine. The shrine was relocated in February 2022, leading the Saga prefectural government to begin research in the following May. This year, a stone coffin believed to belong to an influential figure was unearthed there.

Signs explaining the details of the coffin were set up around the dig site along with a QR code. When the code is scanned with a smartphone, 3D images of the coffin appear, allowing visitors to zoom in or rotate the images.

Several marks, including an “X” shape, are irregularly inscribed on the three heavy stone lids of the coffin, inspiring visitors’ imagination that they are there to seal away spirits or show a celestial map. The 3D reproduction allows visitors to take a closer look at the marks by magnifying it with a smartphone.

“It is sometimes difficult for the average person to learn about objects with just photos and text. 3D images make it easier to imagine what they were like,” said a 67-year-old man from Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The prefectural government completed its exploration inside the coffin and has been excavating the remaining 40% of the mysterious area since late September.

According to the government, excavation sites are not usually opened to the public until research is completed, so the digital tour was well-received as a new way to enjoy the atmosphere of the dig site, showing reproduced images of artifacts, while excavation work was still underway.

Wakayama University Prof. Masami Okyudo, who is an expert on tourism incorporating video technology, said, “This is an unprecedented initiative that conveys the charm of the ruins both in real and virtual terms.”

Where was the Yamatai Kingdom?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Excavation workers carefully dig into the soil around a coffin at the Yoshinogari Ruins in September.

According to Chinese historical documents, it is believed that a kingdom called Yamatai — reigned over by shamanic ruler Queen Himiko — existed in Japan from the late second to third centuries, but its location has not been clearly determined. There is debate over its location between two main theories — that it was in the Nara Basin of the Kinai region or that it was in the Kyushu region.

The coffin discovered this year at the Yoshinogari Ruins is believed to be of an influential figure from the period when the Yamatai Kingdom existed, and what were discovered there may support the Kyushu theory.

In Nara Prefecture, however, a large amount of earthenware from all over the country has been unearthed at the Makimuku Ruins, giving credence to the Kinai theory.