Harnessing the Afterlife: The Cross-Cultural Iconography and Funerary Significance of the Fujinoki Tomb’s Gilt-Bronze Saddle (6th Century CE)

Harnessing the Afterlife

April 26, 2021

April 26 | 4-4:30 p.m. |  Online - Zoom WebinarCarl Gellert

Speaker: Carl Gellert, Lecturer, Seattle Central College

The research presented in this talk approaches the examination of archaeological remains from an art historical perspective, relying on a combination of material, iconographic, and textual analyses as a means of exploring the mortuary traditions of Japan’s prehistoric Kofun period.
The 1985-1988 excavations of Japan’s Fujinoki tomb resulted in the unexpected discovery of an extensive collection of preserved grave-goods. This assemblage represents one of the most intact and materially lavish assemblages to have been recovered from a Late Kofun period (500-600 CE) tomb, and provides a unique glimpse into the funerary culture of Japan’s sixth-century Nara Basin. Prominent among the artifacts excavated from the site are the remains of a gilt-bronze saddle. This saddle, adorned with embossed and engraved images of mythological beasts, arabesques, and geometric patterns, derives from saddle manufacturing and visual ornamentation traditions linked to various regions of the Japanese archipelago and East Asian mainland. In this talk, I explore several of the iconographic motifs found on this work, discussing their symbolic meaning in comparison with similar imagery from contemporaneous mortuary sites in China, Korea, and Japan. By considering the arrangement of the gilded saddle among the other grave-goods interred at Fujinoki, I explore the possible meanings that this work would have held within sixth-century funerary beliefs, suggesting that the saddle was intended to assist the deceased in their transference to the afterlife, their soul conveyed to the cosmological realm astride a heavenly horse.