The largest sarcophagus tomb yet has been discovered at the Yoshinogari ruins, an archaeological site from the Yayoi period (ca. 5th c. B.C. – 3rd c. A.D.) in the Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan. The tomb dates to the late 2nd century to the middle of the 3rd century. At 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) long and 1.7 meters (5.6 feet) wide, the sarcophagus pit is much larger than any of the other 18 found at the site. They are usually about two meters (6.6 feet) long, and before this, the longest was 2.7 meters (8.9 feet). The stone sarcophagus itself is 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) long and .65 meters (2 feet) wide at the widest point.
The lid is composed of four stone slabs engraved with numerous linear symbols, including Xs and hashes. These are believed to have apotropaic properties, to ward off evil and keep the deceased safe. They appear to have worked in this case. The tomb has not been opened yet, but it is intact and undamaged, so archaeologists believe it was never looted and may contain historically important grave goods.
The Yoshinogari site is vast, covering approximately 40 hectares, and has been excavated continuously since its discovery in 1986. It contains the remains of settlements, granaries, bronze casting workshops, a watchtower, a mound burial and more than 3,000 jar burials. The mound and jar burials are from the early and middle Yayoi period. The recently-discovered sarcophagus tomb is the only late Yayoi grave discovered at the site thus far.
It is solitary, not part of a larger burial ground. It was discovered at the top of a hill where a Shinto shrine was built much later. The area had never been excavated before because of the shrine, but it was relocated last year, opening up the possibility of excavation. The grave is located on a high point with a magnificent view, and would have been a prime burial location. The deceased must have been an influential person.
The site — which is a national park and includes replicas of the ancient settlement and other attractions — is currently open to the public. Excavation of the sarcophagus tomb resumes next week. Archaeologists plan to open the lid of coffin and investigate its contents.