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7 February 2004
Highway threatens stone circle in Japan

Plans to construct a highway in Hokkaido (Japan) have placed an exceptionally well-preserved stone circle excavated last year in Morimachi in danger of being lost forever. The stone monument eloquently depicts the spiritual world of people in the Jomon period (ca 10,000 BCE - ca 300 BCE) and the layers of volcanic ash from Mt. Komagatake that covered the site apparently preserved it.
     The stone circle, excavated by Morimachi's local board of education, is located in the Washinoki Ruins No. 5, on a hill about 40 kilometers north of Hakodate. Funka Bay can be seen from the hill's crest. The Morimachi circle, which is actually oval in shape, is thought to date back to the late Jomon period, about 4,000 years ago. The monument consists of three circles of stones and is the largest in Hokkaido and one of the largest in the country. The outermost circle's diameter is 34-37 meters. Although its size is smaller than that of the Oyu stone circle in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture, which is a national heritage site and has a diameter of about 48 meters, the Morimachi stone circle is larger than the Oshiyoro stone circle in Otaru, Hokkaido, which is about 33 meters in diameter.
     About 530 stones were used to make the Morimachi circle, including the riverside stones that make up its outer perimeter and the middle circle, where the stones are irregularly placed about 50 centimeters within the other. The inner circle's stones fill a space that is about four meters in diameter.
     Some stone circles are believed to have been used as graveyards. But like the stone circle in the Komakino ruins, a national heritage site in Aomori Prefecture, the stone circle in Morimachi is not thought to be one of these. However, the remnants of a large pit were found at the southern side of the Morimachi stone circle and could have been a grave. About another 100 meters away from the site, is an area that some believe to have been a mass grave. "It's highly likely that the whole area was a gigantic ritual center for the Jomon people," said Yasushi Kosugi, an assistant professor of archeology at Hokkaido University.
     As the excavation of the stone circle was initially undertaken to make a record of it before construction began on the highway, preserving the site is problematic. A tunnel must be dug beneath it, through which the new highway could be diverted. If such a tunnel will be created, two bridge supports that have already been completed would have to be discarded, which would increase the original budget for the project by several billion yen and extend the construction period by three or four years. The Morimachi mayor, who is also the vice president of a group promoting the construction of the highway in southern Hokkaido, has opposed preserving the site because its maintenance would be a burden for the town and the town needed to secure an emergency route in case Mt. Komagatake erupted. The Hokkaido Prefectural Board of Education urged the town to reconsider its position.
     Towns and villages generally support the preservation of ancient sites, and Morimachi's case is unusual because the government is willing to preserve the ruins while the town is reluctant to do so. Tatsuo Kobayashi, a professor of archeology at Kokugakuin University, said: "The people in the Jomon period labored over something that didn't give them wealth. They left their mark here, which was preserved by nature. These stone circles are their declaration of being human."

Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun (4 February 2004)

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