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In Session: Excavating New Insights on Early Northeast Asia: How Archaeological Research is Revolutionizing the Study of Early Japan and Korea
4: Disposing of Words: Poetry Inscriptions on Objects from Early Japan in a Transnational Context
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Oklahoma, United States
This paper will examine inscriptions of poetry on objects and building elements from early Japan, and how these compare against similar inscriptions of poetry from other contemporaneous Eurasian societies. The importation of writing into Japan occurred comparatively late (fifth-sixth centuries CE), and was so rapid that extant court chronicles from the eighth century record the process. Excavations in recent decades have uncovered inscriptions of poetry from seventh- and eighth-century sites across Japan, many of which are on objects that were broken or thrown away, as well as on walls and ceilings of surviving structures—what we might call “graffiti.” Although these inscriptions have been studied in relation to other extant early Japanese poetry texts, their purpose is still not understood.
This paper proposes to explore why the early Japanese created these inscriptions through a comparative approach to similar behavior from China under the Tang Dynasty (618-908 CE), kingdoms of the northern Indian subcontinent during the first millennium CE, and early imperial Rome (1st century BCE-1st century CE). These societies used similar technologies of and for writing, and evidence of poetry inscribed on objects and structures has been found from sites belonging to each. Looking at how and why members of other, similar societies created “graffiti” can offer parallels to the case in early Japan. Furthermore, through looking at Japanese examples alongside objects from contemporaneous societies, we may be able to move beyond Japan itself, and propose a paradigm for premodern poetry circulation outside manuscript traditions.