Excavating Late-Medieval History in Japan

Who planted them –
those trees out in the fields
shrouded by mist?

        -Shinkei (1406-75)

On a cloudy but humid summer day in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I am enjoying a brief beach respite with my family while also thinking about the archaeological remains of the destruction of a castle town in sixteenth-century Japan.

I am a historian of late medieval and early modern Japan with a strong interest in material culture. I am not formally trained as an archaeologist but have always consulted with and read the work of archaeologists in Japan, and in previous projects drew extensively on excavation reports and archaeological materials from cities such as Kyoto, Osaka, and Sakai.

While I wait for my second monograph (on material culture and Tokugawa Ieyasu) to be published, hopefully in 2015, I have been doing preliminary work on my third major research project, a study of daily life in late-medieval Japanese castle towns using both archaeological materials and documentary evidence. My main site is the castle town of Ichijodani, near present-day Fukui City. Ichijodani served as the headquarters of the Asakura family of warriors for five generations, from the late fifteenth to the late sixteenth century. It is unusually well preserved as an archaeological site, having been destroyed by the warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1573 but never resettled as an urban center.

Today Ichijodani is a sleepy agricultural community that is home to a marvelous reconstruction of a portion of the town (see below), a fine museum just outside of the valley, and well-preserved ruins of various sorts.


In moments of peace between trips to the beach, I am reviewing my notes from multiple visits to the site and the museum, as well as perusing scans of catalogs, document collections, and other historical materials. I am reading letters and documents about Asakura Takakage (1428-81), who led the Asakura as they supplanted the Shiba warlords as rulers of Echizen province, and Asakura Yoshikage (1533-73), who was the unfortunate head of the family when his lineage and headquarters were destroyed in the period’s violent civil wars. I am also studying images of the luxury Chinese ceramics, the various forms of Echizen pottery, the unglazed and low-temperature ritual vessels, and other materials excavated from homes across the town. Reading these old things alongside their contemporaneous old texts is a challenge and a pleasure.