3rd c. wooden mask found in Osaka

A wooden mask dating to the early 3rd century has been discovered at the Nishi-Iwata Ruins in Osaka. It is only the third known wooden mask from the period ever discovered in Japan. It was found last June during a survey excavation in advance of construction of an extension of the Osaka Monorail. The mask was in a sedimentary flood layer 9.5 feet beneath the surface, preserved the wood in near-perfect condition by the waterlogged terrain.

The mask was carved from a solid piece of cedar and is about 12 inches long, seven inches wide and .8 inches thick at its thickest point. The front of the mask has holes cut out for the eyes and mouth and an angled projection from between the middle of the eyes to right above the mouth for a nose. A small hole on the right side was likely used to run a string through so the mask could be mounted.

The mask is very heavy and the back of it is flat, so it probably was not worn over the face. Other wooden objects from the same period, including the carbonized blade of a hoe and planks from a water bucket were discovered nearby. Archaeologists believe therefore than the objects were used in harvest festivals to petition the gods

Kaoru Terasawa, director of the Research Center for Makimukugaku, Sakurai City, in Nara Prefecture, said the mask was probably displayed at festivals because it is too heavy to wear.

“I believe the mask represented a ‘spirit of a head,’ which was believed to be a god in the shape of a human and representing the authority of Okimi. I imagine that powerful people who were influenced by the ceremonies of the Yamato Kingship used the mask at festivals,” Terasawa said.

Okimi is the title of the head of the Yamato Kingship, a political alliance of powerful families centered in present-day Nara Prefecture that prevailed from the third to the seventh century.

The mask will go on display at the Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture in Izumi City from April 29th to May 7th.

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