The very earliest haniwa were produced in the 250’s and were simple cylinders used as boundary markers. By the 450’s however, figures began to be added to the upper section of these cylinders. These forms often depicted architectural models, miko (female ritual specialists who served the shrines), various animals (most commonly horses) and soldiers, most notably a magnificent example excavated in Ōta, Gunma Prefecture and now residing in the National Museum Tokyo.
Of stylised form, these figural haniwa possess a distinct, haunting appearance. With a minimalist face consisting of simple cut out eyes and mouth, there is little attempt to portray a sense of realism in the shape of the body. This simplicity is undoubtedly part of their visual power, which imposes itself forcefully upon the viewer.
Though the earlier cylinder haniwa are accepted as having been used as boundary markers, there is considerable debate as to the function of the later figural examples. The preponderance of soldiers and miko could suggest that their function was primarily defensive, to protect the deceased from supernatural beings. Another theory contends that they were used as a demonstration of the wealth and sophistication of the interned, with the range of figures and animals perhaps intended to serve in the afterlife.
The present example was uncovered near Haniu village, Gunma Prefecture, a leading regional centre for the production of haniwa. Stylistically a similar example can be found at The British Museum (accession number Franks.2210). Yet the depiction, that of a girl holding a water jug atop her head, is an unusual one, with the vast majority of female forms depicting miko. She is also missing the flat shelf-like headdress most often associated with the ritual specialists, once again pointing to the more prosaic yet rare attribution of a worker or servant.
This ancient Japanese Haniwa figure is a highlight in our forthcoming auction of Asian & Islamic Works of Art taking place on 13th May 2020.