Home | Index "Tama Koko" No. 31, 2001

An Explanation of the Large Pillars at
the Sannai Maruyama Site

Charles T. Keally
April 25, 2001

The structure consisting of six massive pillars at the Sannai Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture is so famous now that there is hardly anyone who has not heard of it. But there is still no agreement on what the above-ground structure looked like or on what its purpose was. Sannai Maruyama's home page (Aomori-ken 2001b) gives broadly two possibilities for the above-ground structure: (1) simply six pillars, and (2) a tall, tower-like structure. For the purpose of this structure, the Sannai Maruyama home page (Aomori-ken 2001b) gives three interpretations.

  1. Kobayashi Tatsuo's (Prof., Kokugakuin University) non-building explanation: The six large pillars are aligned to the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset; the structure is a monument to take the Jomon people's prayers to heaven.

  2. Takashima Seiyu(?)'s (Prof., Architecture Department of the Hachinohe National College of Technology) building explanation: Considering the advanced social structure at Sannai Maruyama, the pillars can be seen as a religious symbol of the village.

  3. Koyama Shuzo's (Prof., National Museum of Enthology) and the Obayashi-gumi's building explanation: These pillars are both a religious facility and a tower meant to be visible from the surrounding area. Study of the compaction of the earth under the pillars will allow estimation of the size of the structure.
But the scientific evidence is very poor. (1) Only the bases of the 80-100 cm diameter chestnut pillars remain in the holes, and (2) these pillars are thought to have exerted considerable weight on the bottoms of the holes. Thus, the interpretations given above are nothing more than speculation, although not impossible.

Most likely reconstruction of the above-ground structure is impossible. And whether the purpose of the structure was religious, a look-out tower or something else, these purposes are just the Jomon people's explanations. Scientifically, these explanations are lacking. First, why did the Jomon people need a look-out tower? Especially, why did they need one so massive? Further, why did the Jomon people have to build such a massive religious structure? Such a massive structure must have consumed a lot of the time and energy of these Jomon people.

My mentor, Shiono Hanjuro (also known as "Granddaddy Jomon"), taught me this: "If you want to understand the Jomon people, you have to first assume that they are both intelligent and lazy." Looked at this way, the following explanation comes to mind. Even though we will never know what the above-ground structure looked like or what the Jomon people said was its purpose, we can develop an hypothesis of this structure's real purpose.

Based on the artifacts, features, and plant and animal remains reported so far from the Sannai Maruyama site, we can be fairly sure that (1) the population was relatively large, (2) the diet was quite rich and stable, and (3) the standard of living was high. As a result, the people probably had a bit too much free time and were open to a number of social problems -- fighting, drunkenness, infidelity, loss of self-respect, and so on. So, one day, the gods told the shaman that, if they wanted to keep the community at Sannai Maruyama village from destruction, the people must build a massive structure to the gods. The shaman conveyed this to the village elders, who then told the people. The people said, "We really don't want to do that much work, but if it is the will of the gods then we will do it." After that, everyone was very busy, and the social problems were considerably reduced.

The Sannai Maruyama pillars were possibly a religious structure, or possibly a look-out tower. But behind these outward purposes was the purpose of keeping the society together. I wonder if Granddaddy Jomon would accept this explanation.

However, while following the idea that the Jomon people were lazy, this explanation shows the limits of their intelligence. The "intelligence" meant by Shiono Hanjuro is technological intelligence; the Jomon people still needed "commands from the gods" to solve social problems. In this, they are quite like modern humans (Harris 1978a, 1978b). Nevertheless, if social problems are not somehow solved in a way that at least appears intelligent, the society will not survive. Thus, whether the Jomon people were intelligent or not, the results of their behavior will still appear intelligent. In this sense, there is no limit to the "intelligence" of Shiono Hanjuro's "intelligent but lazy" Jomon people.

Thus, in order to fully explain the massive pillars at Sannai Maruyama, we need to clearly distinguish the outward explanation of the Jomon people (Aomori-ken 2001a) from my inner, or underlying, explanation. Cultural anthropology calls the former (outward) explanation the emic explanation, and the latter (underlying) one the etic explanation.


This paper is a translation of a paper originally published in Japanese in the small annual journal Tama Koko (The Archaeological Research in Tama District).