HOW ancient are the objects in "Ancient Japan," the exhibition now at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian?
Anywhere from 200,000 years old, from a site called Babadan A, where excavation through 33 layers of volcanic ash revealed stone tools used by hunters living then, to a sophisticated wall painting of three Japanese women in costume from the Asuka period (A.D. 600-700.) when Japan became a centralized state.
The span of time represented by this show is amazing. But nearly as amazing is the fact that many of the objects are archeological finds from the last 30 years. (During that time, new building sites in land-starved Japan have been routinely subjected to "digs" for artifacts.) Many of these exhibited objects have never been seen outside of Japan.
An age-old Japanese belief had prevented much digging until World War II, points out anthropologist Richard Pearson, who is guest curator for the show as well as the principal author of its catalog. Japanese archeologists were forbidden to contradict the "Imperial Myth of Origin," which stated that the ancestors of the Japanese people descended from heaven in 660 B.C.
After the war, archeologists shoveled through the layers of hundreds of centuries to prove that man existed as far back as 200,000 years ago in Japan, in the Paleolithic period or prehistoric Stone Age culture.
Prehistoric Japan comes to life in the 258 objects in this exhibition, which includes stone, clay, wood, bone, lacquer, and bronzes retrieved from 63 sites among Japan's string of islands. Most have been discovered since1970. More than 20,000 new sites are investigated each year.
This is the first time an exhibition from Japan has appeared at the Sackler, and the first show of prehistoric art from Japan held anywhere in the West. It is also an aesthetic treat, full of beauty from Japan's earliest history. It was organized by the Sackler in cooperation with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the government of Japan.
This treasure of formerly buried objects is appropriately seen in the underground depths of the Sackler, where it is subtly displayed.
Even the Stone Age tools from the Paleolithic Period (200,000 to 10,500 B.C.), polished with age, gleam like semi-precious gems. From the Jomon Period (10,500 to 400 B.C.) came the earliest-known ceramic vessels. It is named for a type of pottery decorated by impressing cords into the clay before it was completely hard.
One of the most intricate examples of Jomon pottery is the "flame-style" vessel; raised clay bands and spiral patterns suggesting flames embellish these dramatic pieces.
FROM the Yayoi Period (400 B.C.-A.D. 250) comes handsome, smooth pottery painted a reddish-orange color with iron oxide and often decorated with only a single off-white stripe. Also from the Yayoi period in the exhibition come the beautiful bronze bells (dotaku) shaped like tall flowerpots with arcs above them, their blue-green surfaces decorated with austere patterns.
The Kofun period (A.D. 250-600) is named for the mounded earth tombs, kofun, that appeared in the 3rd to late 6th century in the Kinai region.The kofun tombs were built for elite members of society (up to emperors). The hard gray stoneware known as "Sue" that was inside the tombs held offerings of food and drink.
"Haniwa," soft orange earthenware in unusual shapes, decorated the tombs in honor of the dead. These appealing creations represented unusual-looking houses, warriors, farmers, deer, horses, monkeys, dogs, stringed instruments, boats, and knives.
In the Asuka Period (A.D. 600-710) a centralized state government was formed, the Buddhist religion was introduced, Chinese and Korean specialists worked on the contruction of large buildings for government offices and Buddhist temples, and new forms of sculpture and art were introduced.
* "Ancient Japan" will be at the Sackler through Nov. 1.