High-tech inspired insights into Japan’s ancient ‘Kofun’ burial mounds

Professor Izumi Niiro is an archaeologist using powerful geographic information systems technology to accurately survey Japanese burial mounts or ‘Kofun’ built between the third to seventh centuries.

3D image of Tsukuriyama Kofun, Okayama-shi, Okayama Prefecture Visualized from the digital data surveyed by Department of Archaeology, Okayama University Tsukuriyama Kofun (350m in length, 5th century AD) is the fourth biggest burial mound in Japan.

“I first became aware of geographic information systems during a sabbatical at Southampton University in 1991,” explains Professor Niiro. “I decided to experiment with this technology for archaeological surveying when I returned to Japan. It enables me to visualize and analyze many types of geographical information such as topographic details of maps.”

Initially Professor Niiro started by using IDRISI from Clark University. “These days I use GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) open source system software,” says Professor Niiro. “The data analysis was initially done using the Perl programming language, but these days I use Python.” Professor Niiro confides that there are very few archaeologists in Japan, if any, who produce their own software programs to analyze geographic information.

Findings by Professor Niiro include visualization of a bronze mirror from the early Kofun Period, third century (Figs. 1 and 2). “I wrote my own software to visualize the surface of the mirror based on 3D scan information,” explains Professor Niiro. “Our results clearly show a triangular-rimmed mirror that is decorated with deities and beasts.”

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