Traces of ink have been detected on an ancient stone found in northern Kyushu, providing evidence that writing was practiced across a wider area than was previously known in the Yayoi Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300) period.
Experts believe the artifact, almost-perfectly shaped but broken in two pieces, is an approximately 2,000-year-old "suzuri" inkstone, making it the first discovery of an inkstone bearing ink and retaining its shape.
Analysis revealed small amounts of carbide, thought to have been used as ink for writing at that time, on the stone that was discovered at the Yakushinoue ruins in Chikuzen, Fukuoka Prefecture.
"This is the first finding unearthed inland to be confirmed as an inkstone," said Yasuo Yanagida, a visiting professor of historical study at Kokugakuin University.
"The discovery suggests that letters were used across a wide area in this period."
The sandy shale inkstone measures about 15 centimeters long, 5 to 6 cm wide, and less than 1 cm thick.
It was excavated in 2003 in an area where many earthenware vessels from the mid-to-late Yayoi Pottery Culture period ruins were gathered, meaning they date from both before and after the beginning of Anno Domini.
Another inkstone was unearthed in 2016 in the Mikumo Iwara ruins in Itoshima, Fukuoka Prefecture, which was the ancient domain of Ito Koku depicted in China’s "Gishiwajinden" (Record of Wa in the history of Wei). The coastal area is considered to be where Japanese people first came into contact with overseas culture.
The subject of the latest discovery is the third such item found in Japan dating to the Yayoi Pottery Culture period following one unearthed in the Tawayama ruins in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, which was confirmed an inkstone in 2001, and the one found among the Mikumo Iwara ruins in 2016.
When writing was introduced and how widely it was used in ancient Japan is a mystery and is a hotly debated subject among archaeologists. As tools of writing, inkstones are important pieces of the puzzle.
Details of the latest discovery will be discussed at a Kyushu archaeological society meeting in Fukuoka later this month.