Python helps visualise mysteries of Japanese Kofun burial mounds


There are precious few archaeologists in Japan, and only a handful who produce their own software programs to analyze geographic information. One who does is Professor Izumi Niiro of the Okayama University. A convert from Perl, Professor Niiro now uses Python to perform data analysis via the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) in order to accurately survey the Japanese burial grounds known as Kofun that were built between the third and seventh centuries.

The largest Kofun site in the Okayama Prefecture in Japan is also the fourth largest in the whole of Japan. The 'Tsukuriyama Kofun' is the burial burial mound of the king of the Kibi and was completed in the fifth century. Consisting of a main burial mound and six smaller structures, Professor Niiro explains that "our analysis shows that it was built using very precise procedures using Chinese 'shaku' units of length" (one shaku is 232mm).

"I first became aware of geographic information systems during a sabbatical at Southampton University in 1991," explains Professor Niiro. "I decided to experiment with this technology for archaeological surveying when I returned to Japan. It enables me to visualize and analyze many types of geographical information such as topographic details of maps." He also uses the same systems in order to visualise objects such as a bronze mirror from the early Kofun period in the third century. Using Python, Professor Niiro says he "wrote my own software to visualize the surface of the mirror based on 3D scan information. Our results clearly show a triangular-rimmed mirror that is decorated with deities and beasts."

Professor Niiro is also turning his attention to the effects that disasters have culturally. "Volcano eruptions have had tremendous effects on the environment and human culture" he explains "in particular the sixth century saw unprecedented changes in the environment". Rice was stored in Northern Kyushu in order to assist the people of Korea, and the Kofun Period itself came to an end in 600 AD "probably due to climate change" according to the professor who adds "the recent massive earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku has led to a rise in disaster archaeology".

About the Author

A freelance technology journalist for 30 years, I have been a Contributing Editor at PC Pro (one of the best selling computer magazines in the UK) for most of them. As well as currently contributing to, The Times and Sunday Times via Raconteur Special Reports, SC Magazine UK, Digital Health, IT Pro and Infosecurity Magazine, I am also something of a prolific author. My last book, Being Virtual: Who You Really are Online, which was published in 2008 as part of the Science Museum TechKnow Series by John Wiley & Sons. I am also the only three times winner (2006, 2008, 2010) of the BT Information Security Journalist of the Year title, and was humbled to be presented with the ‘Enigma Award’ for a ‘lifetime contribution to information security journalism’ in 2011 despite my life being far from over...

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