|Dogu from Aomori||Dogu from Akita|
|Mask from Akita||Dogu from Akita|
|Snow goggles from the BOA Museum, possibly either Scandinavian or Central European rather than Alaskan|
Nowadays you can browse the contents of major museums around the world on the Internet (and the collections of smaller ones too, like the BOA Museum!) It is easy to forget how recently it was still very difficult to discover just what 'stuff' most museums held. The BOA Museum tried to help by collecting high-quality photographs of items in the collections of other museums. At other times photographs were sent in to the museum for help in identification or seeking a professional opinion and these were retained. The images shown here have suddenly come back into significance because they depict some items from the museum of the University of Tokyo and the Tokyo National Museum which happen to be on display here in London at the moment.
The Power of Dogu is an exhibition in Room 91 at the British Museum until 22 November 2009. Dogu are usually clay figures (sometimes stone) that were fashioned by primitive pre-agricultural peoples who lived in sunken pit houses on the Japanese islands from around 13000 BC and just into the early Yayoi period around the time of Christ, by which time this form of art had outlived its original function. They represent humans, if sometimes in a rather stylised manner and seem to have had a ritual purpose. The number to have been unearthed now runs into the thousands but many of these have resulted from relatively recent archaeological digs. By contrast the items shown here were discovered in the 1880s and the photographs date from 1960. Our understanding of these objects at that time was very different.
Early dogu had no facial features at all. Then in the Middle Jomon period (Jomon means 'cord marked' and relates to a style of ceramic decoration, not confined to dogu but also to be found on pottery vessels), which began around 2500 BC, what are sometimes described as 'almond-shaped' eyes start to occur. Some of the figures look distinctly feline. Sometimes the eye is just a hole; at other times it is formed of an applique ring of clay, sometimes continuous with joined eyebrows. Some eyes appear to have tattoos beneath them, or these marks could even represent tears. One example in the British Museum exhibition, from the 'Late Jomon' period (1500-1000 BC), has blackened eye sockets in which traces of asphalt have been identified. The suggestion is that the asphalt was an adhesive to hold coloured stones that would have represented the orbits. In the absence of these stones we cannot be certain if the eyes of the figure were meant to be open or closed.
Of primary interest to the BOA Museum were the 'Final Jomon' period figures (c.1000-300 BC). They have distinctive 'google eyes' known in Japanese as shakoki" - literally "light-blocking device". Between 1889 and 1892 a Japanese professor of archaeology Tsuboi Shogoro was studying in London and spent much time at the British Museum. He was struck by the similarity between the slitty eyes of the Dogu and the slitted snow goggles used by other cultures to combat glare and prevent snow blindness. Tsuboi was looking at far eastern examples, but such goggles were also present in Western cultures as our bottom picture shows. The nature of their construction means that it would be impossible to say whether the dogu are meant to be wearing goggles or if it is their own eyes that are depicted. Whilst no examples of Japanese snow goggles have ever been found from this period the exhibition's claim that the bulging eyes constitute a progression of an already developing form is far from absolutely convincing. An argument to the contrary is that by this late period some dogu were actually created as face masks, that is to say as a covering for the eyes (though most likely of a dead person) but the treatment of one of those masks (pictured here) could represent the deliberate gouging out of an eye for ritual purposes. That is to say that the ritual significance of the ocular area of the mask may have been to symbolise the actual human eye. It may have been believed that illnesses could be transferred into the Dogu, then destroyed, banishing the disease.
The clay mask appears to be specimen A4117 at the University of Tokyo, from the Aso-site, Akita Prefecture (Final Jomon, designated Important Cultural Property). That mask was collected by N. Ohno and introduced to the academic community by S. Tsuboi in 1897. It was designated as an Important Cultural Property of the nation in 1957. The eyes are typical of the so called 'goggle-type' figurines, but the nose and mouth is shaped in a more realistic style. There are no eyebrows. The lack of holes at the eyes and the occurrence of small ones laterally suggest that the mask was perhaps worn on the forehead or hung rather than worn on the face.
The standing figure was discovered in 1886 in Kamegaoka and has been subject to additional restoration since our photograph was taken half a century ago. There is now an enormous replica of it above the door to Kizukuri Railway Station. If you are passing that way, why not take an original photograph of it and send it in to the museum, thereby continuing a distinguished collecting tradition?