- The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture, and Icons of Seventh-Century Japan, and: Nagaoka: Japan's Forgotten Capital
Two works on pre-Heian Japan, both published at nearly the same time, seek to combine archaeological and documentary data in examining the most advanced and challenging construction projects of the time, projects that, on the one hand, required a substantial portion of the resources commandable by the politically most powerful players, and, on the other hand, served as symbols intended to express and promote that power. Donald F. McCallum's study, set largely in the seventh century and the greater Asuka region, concerns the Buddhist temple, whose buildings required entirely new methods of construction, from their foundations on up, to bear the weight of the heavy tile roofs. Ellen Van Goethem's examination, meanwhile, focusing on the eighth century's closing decades, takes up the fifth of six Chinese-style capital cities built during the hundred years preceding the move to Heian in 794 and featuring a palace compound arranged on a vast and orderly grid of city streets. In both cases, the symbolic forms and contents involved were informed largely by ideologies derived from the Asian continent, and the edifices indicate the Japanese elite's participation in wider currents of ideas linking the diverse societies of East Asia. At the same time, as the books' temporal scopes fall on opposite sides of the Nara period, there are marked differences in the detail and reliability of the documentary materials available to their authors. Accordingly, the specificity of problems they draw from the historical record for the purpose of examination differs greatly, as does the amount of human detail—names of personages, titles of offices, ideological content of the architecture—they are able to combine with the archaeological data to provide portrayals of past social life.
Nothing illustrates better the level of uncertainty that characterizes the pre-Nara period than the case of Kudara Ōdera, second of the four temples McCallum examines. A Nihon shoki entry of 680.4.25 specifies the term "great temple" (ōdera/daiji) as indicating one that was state administered as well as state supported. Shoku Nihongi mentions a fixed set of four great temples in accounts of rites held at these institutions following the deaths of Jitō in 702 and Monmu in 707, and a similar entry for 703.1.5 identifies the temples by their Buddhist names: Daian, Yakushi, Gangō, and Gufuku. The latter two are better known as Asukadera and Kawaradera, respectively. The origins of Daianji (i.e., Kudara Ōdera) can be traced to a vow made by Jomei in 639 to [End Page 373] build a great palace and temple on the banks of the Kudara river, with a Nihon shoki entry later that year indicating that the temple had a nine-story pagoda. Oddly, Jomei's widow and successor, Kōgyoku, repeated the vow three years later. No reliable reference to this Kudara Ōdera is subsequently encountered, however, until its move to Takechi is recorded in 673. The temple history Daianji engi next relates that the name was changed to Daikandaiji in 677. Monmu subsequently built a larger version of this temple in the Fujiwara capital, before Daikandaiji was transferred to Nara as Daianji.
Although historical research suggests the place-name Kudara once referred to an area east of the Fujiwara palace, no suitable candidate for the temple had been found there or anywhere else until 1997, when excavation began in conjunction with repairs to the dike of a pond named Kibi in the present city of Sakurai, situated to the east of where the palace once stood. The dike contained the remains of a podium, built with firm layers of tamped earth and originally faced with durable material, typically stone such as granite or tuff, on top of which foundation stones once lay to receive the weight of pillars...