Tôran-kai 倒卵形 tsuba from the Kofun Jidai 古墳時代 (also referred to as the Kofun Bunkai 古墳文化). A very rare Tôran-kai tsuba with gold gilt dating back approximately 1500 years. Made primarily from bronze or iron, Tôran-kai tsuba are the earliest tsuba we know of in Japanese history. This tsuba was excavated from a burial mound in Fujioka-shi 藤岡市 (Fujioka city) in Tano-gun 野郡 (Tano district) in Gunma-ken 群馬県夛 (Gunma prefecture). There are several burial mounds in the Fujioka city area so at this time it would be hard to know which one it came from though the following sites mention the excavations of Tachi and Chokuto.
This tsuba is a bronze version and quite small at (H)5cm x (W)3.7cm x (T)0.2cm.
The tsuba is heavily effected with green tarnish. This is caused by salts in the earth effecting the bronze when the item was buried. There is a crack on the upper left hand side of the tsuba also. Seveal areas on the face of the tsuba show remnants of gold gilt.
Soft metal Tôran-kai guards appear in the same shapes and sukashi styles as the iron ones, but are much thinner. Raised rims, which are not seen on the iron examples, are common and were probably needed to give rigidity to the plate. Of course there are examples without raised rims, as per this item. It is written is several books that gilded tsuba were for formal wear and posssed by the upper class and the iron tsuba were for general use in battle etc but this may only just be an assumption as it is impossible for us to really know what was happening 1500 years ago. Further speculation argues that the majority of these swords and fittings were made in either China or Korea and this is very much a possiblity. Sword production in Japan cannot be proven before approximately 1000AD (though I am sure there must have been some replication of imported items before that time) so it is likely these Chokuto and their fittings were brought in from other countries.
Another suggestion has the many farmers and other civilians who were drafted to fight battles making their own weapons and copying the designs worn by the ruling and military classes. This may be a possibility but I doubt whether any of these items would have found there way into a burial mound.
At the time, gilt bronze was also used extensively in horse trappings and later in Buddhist objects. The metalworkers that produced these objects may have also produced sword fittings, or kodogu making may have been a specialty on its own. The quality of this early metal work is as high as anything that came later.
The era from 300AD to 538AD is called the Kofun Bunka period 古墳文化時代. It is named after the method of interment of the chiefs and important people of that era in stone crypts or dolmens, which were located in burial mounds. These dates that denote the start and end of this period vary depending on the source, though we know that the Kofun Bunka was preceeded by Yayoi Jidai 弥生時代 the and followed by the Asuka Jidai 飛鳥時代 so that should lock in an actual set of dates. It is highly probable that the use of Kofun etched well into both the proceeding and folling periods and this may be the cause of any discrepinces.
Encircling the mound and the moats which sometimes surround the tomb are rows of fired clay cylinders known as Haniwa 埴輪. The reasons for this are not clear but theories include ‘satbalizing ther mound’ and ‘demarcating the site’. Another theory is that their arrangment depicted ritual processions performed on the site for the spirit of the deceased. Aside from their obvious aesthetic value, these figures are chiefly valuable for the information derived from them concerning the dress and habits of the people of those remote times. This includes the style of swords that were worn at the time and they way they were worn.
The most important objects found within the tombs are swords, usually Chokuto 直刀. There are several types differentiated mainly by variations in the form of the pommel and the shaft. All have single edged blades, the backs of which are straight. the mounts of these swords are generally bronze richly gilded and often with patterns in repousse. The tsuba are of bronze covered with sheet gold, iron with inlayed decoration, or simple iron. Most have pierced trapezoidal openings. With the swords are found iron plate armor of an advanced conception, horse trappings, bows, arrows with complex points, and other warlike paraphernalia as well as many objects of a more domestic utility. All bear witness to a sophisticated culture highly advanced technically and artistically.
In regards to the paper attached to the bako, the following information is inscribed.
First line: 神代太刀鍍金切刄. 神代 Jindai literally means the age of the gods or ancient. Then there is 太刀 Tachi, tokin or mekki – this is followed by 鍍金 Gilt or plating and lastly 切刄 Kiriha which I believe in this case means Seppa. Perhaps the author of this bako though this a seppa and not a tsuba. Seppa on these old tacji were large, deep items almost reminiscent of fuchi.
Second line: 群馬県夛野郡藤岡町出土. This line describes the location of the site in Japan where the item was unearthed. 群馬県夛 Gunma-ken 野郡 Tano-gun 藤岡町 Fujioka-machi. 出土 (Shutsudo) means unearthed.
Third line: The date is 昭和十年五月八日. Shouwa Ju Nen Go Gatsu Hachi Hi. The 8th of May, 1935. The date on the label may be the date when the item was discovered. The label seems to be written after 1945 as the characters were written from the left to the right.
Thank you for reading.