Science Researcher Rodrigo Salvador spends most of his working hours studying snails, but his interest spans much further afield.
Here, he discusses one of his favourite ‘weird’ objects in our history collection – a goggle-eyed figurine from pre-historic Japan.
It just looks so outlandish, like a creepy 3,000-year old action figure. Our small statue here at Te Papa, however, is just a replica. The real figurines were made out of clay and, as a category, are called dogū. They were produced during the Jōmon period of Ancient Japan (roughly 13,000 to 400 BCE).
What do dogū represent?
Most scholars believe these figures were related to incipient sedentism and agricultural practices.
Since most dogū represent women, several scholars say that they are representations of a mother (Earth) goddess. Others state that they are just general fertility symbols, related to fertility rituals and/or providers of magical protection during events such as childbirth.
However, there are several types of dogū and they probably had different functions and purposes, although we still do not know what they were.
Te Papa’s dogū belong to a category called “goggle-eyed dogū” (shakōki-dogū). Other categories have amusing names, such as mountain-shaped-head dogū and heart-shaped dogū, like the one below.
The pervasiveness of dogū
What I find so great about dogū is how, despite being ancient artefacts, they remain so pervasive in Japanese culture. There are monuments where famous dogū were found:
And there are many mangas, animes, and videos games featuring them. Just to illustrate with two famous examples, there is Claydol, a Pokémon, and Aharabaki, a demon in the series Persona.
If you’re interested and want to know more about dogū and their place in Japanese pop culture, I’ve written an article for the Journal of Geek Studies called ‘Dogū: from prehistoric figurines to collectable pocket monsters‘.
Te Papa’s dogū replica
Back to Te Papa’s replica. Unfortunately, I was not able to track down the exact figure that it is a replica of. I discovered there is another such replica in the exhibition at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas del Mundo (in the National Palace of Mexico City). However, that museum could not be reached for comments.
Our dogū was brought back from Japan by Dr. Terrence Barrow in 1964, when he was invited by the Japanese government to visit their museums.
Terry Barrow (1923–2001) was a Wellingtonian who became interested in ethnology very early on, during his schoolboy days. He followed his passion and graduated from the University of Auckland (BA), Victoria University of Wellington (MA) and University of Cambridge, UK (PhD).
He fought in World War II and married a Japanese woman, Hisako Barrow. In 1948, he started working at our ancestral institution, the Dominion Museum, becoming senior ethnologist in 1958.
Here, he made several valuable scientific contributions in Māori studies, but eventually took a position at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
He worked there as the curator of the Polynesian Collection from 1964 to his retirement, in 1968.
He lived in Hawaiʻi for the rest of his life and left a legacy of 20 books about Māori and Polynesian culture and art.
Te Papa has other replicas of Japanese prehistoric artefacts, including another dogū and some haniwa (clay figures from the Kofun period, 200–700 CE).
Te Papa’s Collections Online is full of weird, wonderful, and unexpected objects and worth browsing the hours away…
If you want to know more about the Jōmon period, the go-to source is the book Ancient Jomon of Japan by Junko Habu (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
For the other periods of Japanese prehistory: The Arcaheology of Japan by Koji Mizoguchi (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Thank you, a very interesting blog with interesting references. And such similarities between the objects – any chance you might like to speculate about the similarities?
Dogū were produced during a set period in the history of Japan, called Jōmon period. Given that they might have some ceremonial/ritual purpose, they were made in a very similar pattern throughout the country. Even so, there were regional variations in design.
Another thing to consider is that there were several categories of dogū, each with its own particular design (the google-eyed is one of them). So it is possible that each category had its own function and purpose, but we don’t know for sure. Archaeologists are still trying to figure this out.