Vol. 1 (2007)
ISSN 1864-6018
Editor: Barbara Seyock

 publ.: May 2008




Edward Sylvester MORSEEdward Sylvester MORSE  [fn. 1] was born in Portland, Maine, on June 18, 1838. After eventful early years, MORSE enrolled at the small Bethel Academy in Maine 1856, where he pursued his interest in the study of nature. After his graduation in 1859, MORSE took up studies in marine biology with a focus on conchology (the study of mollusc shells) at Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. He also started to work at the Zoological Museum. In the 1860s, MORSE’s studies of brachiopods along the Atlantic seashore earned him international attention. He later on became Chair of Comparative Anatomy and Zoology at Bowdoin College, Lecturer at Harvard University, Fellow of the National Academy of Science and co-editor of the American Naturalist magazine.

In search of new specimens for his studies MORSE prepared a journey to Japan, where he eventually arrived in June 1877 and stayed much longer than planned, almost three years. Unexpectedly he had been invited to join faculty at the Science Department of the University of Tōkyō as Professor of Zoology and Physiology. The University of Tōkyō had been established in April 1877, just a few months before MORSE arrived in Japan.

In his Japan diary MORSE describes his early encounter with the Ōmori shell mound: "The very first time I rode to Tokyo, a few days after I landed, I noticed from the car windows in a railway cut through which we passed, a deposit of shells which I knew at once to be a true Kjoekkenmoedding. I had studied too many shell heaps on the coast of Maine not to recognize its character at once. I had waited for months for an opportunity to visit it, fearing all the time that somebody would get there before me" (MORSE 1917, I:287-289, [September 16, 1877]). [fn. 2]

At that time, MORSE did not know that the shell mounds of Ōmori were already well known in Japan, "and collections of paraphernalia from them existed in the Tokugawa era, if not earlier" (TANAKA 2004:28). These collections, however, were not gathered through scientific excavations but extracted from the mound during more or less casually done field surveys resulting from Tokugawa antiquarianism.

Regarding the chronology of western interest in the Ōmori mound, moreover, there are clear hints that Heinrich von SIEBOLD (1852-1908), son of the well-known physician and Japan expert Philipp Franz von SIEBOLD (1796-1866), carried out private excavations at the Ōmori shell mounds even before MORSE started his investigation (KREINER 1980:155seqq.; SAHARA 1996). Heinrich von SIEBOLD describes these excavations in his publications on Japanese prehistory (e.g. SIEBOLD 1878; SIEBOLD 1879). Furthermore, the German geologist Edmund NAUMANN (1854-1927) is said to have been investigating at the Ōmori shell mound in late 1877 (KREINER 1980:183).

Title page of the "Shell Mounds of Omori"Nevertheless, MORSE was the first who excavated these mounds subsidised by a university  [fn. 3] and accompanied by colleagues and students, and he was the first to publish an excavation report on a Japanese site. The report on the material collected at Ōmori was published both in English and Japanese. The English edition, "Shell Mounds of Ōmori", was issued in July 1879 as volume 1, part 1 of the Memoirs of the Science Department, University of Tōkyō. The Japanese edition, "Ōmori kaikyo kobutsuhen 大森介墟古物編" – translated by YATABE Ryōkichi 矢田部良吉 (1851-1899) [fn. 4], was issued in December of the same year as volume 1 of the Rika Kaisui 理科會粹.

MORSE describes the first day  [fn. 5] of his excavation at Ōmori in his Japan diaries as follows: "With Mr. Matsumura and two of my special students   [fn. 6] I started early in the morning, carrying a small basket but no implements with which to dig […]. We rode to Omori, six miles from Tokyo, and then walked up the line half a mile to the embankment. In the mean time I told my students what we should find — ancient hand-made pottery, worked bones, and possibly a few crude stone implements, and then gave a brief account of Steenstrup's discovery of shell heaps along the Baltic and also the shell heaps in New England and Florida. When we finally reached the place we began immediately to pick up remarkable fragments of ancient pottery and the students insisted that I must have been there before. I was quite frantic with delight and the students shared in my enthusiasm. We dug with our hands and examined the detritus that had rolled down and got a large collection of unique forms of pottery, three worked bones, and a curious baked-clay tablet. As there has always been a great interest as to the character of the aborigines of the country, and as this subject has never before been studied, it is considered an important discovery. I shall prepare a general paper for the ‘Popular Science Monthly’ […]" (MORSE 1917, I:288seqq.). The paper MORSE had in mind is the reprinted paper noted below, "Traces of an Early Race in Japan". MORSE, always accompanied by students, friends and colleagues, visited the Ōmori shell mounds again for several times during his Japan years and continued to collect artefacts there.

At any rate, MORSE was a genius promoter of his investigations. Dated as early as September 21, 1877 he announced his discovery to the leading scientific journal in London, Nature: "The discovery [...] enables me to give positive evidence regarding a prehistoric race who occupied this island." [fn. 7]

The next month, he already gave a lecture on the Ōmori pottery and the evidences of an early race in Japan at a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Japan: "On Saturday, October 13, I gave a lecture before the Asiatic Society of Japan, in Yokohama, on "Traces of Early Man in Japan." It has never been my fortune to have so mixed an audience before, mostly Englishmen, a few Americans, a few ladies, and in the rear of the hall a fringe of Japanese. Mr. Fukuyo helped me get my objects down from Tokyo, and I had some rare and delicate specimens to handle" (MORSE 1917,I:359).

And in June 1878 [fn. 8]: "[…] I was invited to address a native archaeological club on the Omori shell mounds. The club holds its meetings at a room in the University on the first Sunday of every month. Mr. Hattori, the Vice-Director of the University, is to act as interpreter. This morning, June 2, I went to the place of the meeting. The members were sitting around a big table, each one having in front of him a small vessel of hot coals buried in ashes for warming the hands and lighting the pipe. I was introduced to them and they all bowed profoundly. I gave my talk in an adjoining room, where I had the ancient pottery spread out in trays. I gave them a general sketch of the subject: the four ages in Europe as defined by Lubbock, the paleolithic, neolithic, bronze, and iron age; then Steenstrup's work on the shell heaps of the Baltic; and finally the Omori mound. It was delightful to have such intelligent and attentive listeners. My blackboard drawings seemed to please them. Altogether I don't know when I have enjoyed giving a lecture more than I did this one." (MORSE 1917, I:385seqq.)

It seems that again he was not the first who informed the Japanese experts on this topic. As early as January 31, 1878, Nature reports about the "archaeological society, bearing the Title of Kobutzu-Kai (Society of Old Things). Its members, numbering 200, are scattered throughout the land, but meet once a month in Yeddo. They consist chiefly of wealthy Japanese gentleman, learned men, and priests." Heinrich von SIEBOLD, a member of the society, Nature continuous, "has lately made a most interesting discovery of a prehistoric mound at Omuri, near Yeddo, containing over 5.000 different articles in stone, bronze, &c." (Nature, XVII, 1877:271seqq.).

On May 9, 1879 Edward S. MORSE left Yokohama for a research trip to the south of Japan together with his assistant, Mr. TANADA, Professor YATABE, and two servants. On their way back from Kyūshū, in July 1879, they visited Kyōto, Nara and Ōsaka. In his Japan diaries he remembers:
"While in Osaka we were told that there were certain ancient mounds in the villages of Hattorigawa, and Korigawa, about twelve miles from Osaka. Our ride carried us across a large plain under complete cultivation. As far as the eye could reach were innumerable well-sweeps after the typical New England style, which were used in bringing up water from shal low wells for irrigating purposes. The mounds were typical dolmens such as have been described in Brittany and Scandinavia: a huge mound of earth covered a long, narrow entrance-way leading to a square chamber, ten or twelve feet across. We examined them with great interest, and wondered how these people, twelve hundred years or more ago, could have raised the immense blocks of stone that form the roofs of these chambers" (MORSE 1917, II:181seqq.).

MORSE describes these dolmens in detail in the article reprinted below, entitled "Dolmens in Japan" and published in the Popular Science Monthly, March 1880.[fn. 9]

MORSE went on four trips through Japan, to Nikkō in 1877 (with Dr. MURRAY), to Hokkaidō in 1878 (with Prof. YATABE), to the Inland Sea and Kyūshū in 1879, and to Kyōto and the Inland Sea in 1882 (with W.S. BIGELOW and E. FENELLOSA). Besides collecting specimens for his zoological and anthropological research, the research in the prehistory of Japan was always one of his main concerns during these journeys.

Memorial stone at the site of the shell mound of Ōmori, erected November 2, 1929. Inscription: "The Site of the Omori Shell Mounds, discovered by Professor Edward S. Morse."In 1879, MORSE returned to the US where he took up the position of director of the Peabody Academy of Sciences (now the Peabody Museum of Salem) from 1880 to 1916 and Director Emeritus until his death. He visited Japan for the last time between June 1882 and February 1883. Edward Sylvester MORSE died in Salem on December 20, 1925 at the age of 87.

MORSE’s bibliography includes 560 entries (HICKMAN/FETCHKO 1977:195), among them many essays on Japan and Japanese archaeology. The following two reprints are well-known, but not well accessible. They were published in Popular Science Monthly in 1879 and 1880. The first one, "Traces of an Early Race in Japan", has been partly translated into Japanese by IKEDA Jirō in the 1970s (IKEDA/ŌNO 1973:54-60).

Both essays are milestones with regard to the debate on the origins of the Japanese people, a major issue within the general discussion of Japanese prehistory among western experts in the early Meiji period (1868-1912). Especially MORSE’s "unquestionable evidences of cannibalism" (1879a (2008)) turned out a heavily discussed topic. [fn. 10]



1) Countless books and articles exist on MORSE’s biography, his work, his collections and his impact on Japanese archaeology, anthropology and zoology, to name only a few: HICKMAN/FETCHKO 1977; ISONO 1990; and IMAMURA. The photographs are taken from OHYAMA 1930.

2) ISONO (1990:206) gives June 19, 1877 as the date of the first visit.

3) "Through the intelligent interest manifested by Mr. Kato and Mt. Hamao, Director and Vice-Director of the Imperial University of Tokio, every facility for a thorough investigation of these deposits will be given me." (MORSE 1877).

4) See reprint below (MORSE 1879a (2008)), endnote s.

5) MORSE gives the date as "September 16, 1877" (MORSE 1877), four days after he had given his first lecture at the University of Tōkyō.

6) For MATSUMURA Jinzō, SASAKI Chūjirō and MATSURA Sayohiko see below MORSE (1879a (2008)), endnote v, w and x.

7) The essay "Traces of Early Man in Japan" was published in Nature, XVII, November 29, 1877:89.

8) ISONO (1990:208) gives the date of the lecture as "June 2, 1878".

9) Some early photographs of these dolmens were taken by William GOWLAND (reprinted in HARRIS/GOTŌ 2003:52seqq.).

10) Morse read on this topic before the Biological Society of the Imperial University on January 5, 1878. The lecture is published as part of his report on the Ōmori site, pp.17-19 (MORSE 1879b).


HARRIS, Victor and Kazuo GOTŌ (eds.) 2003, William Gowland: The Father of Japanese Archaeology. Tōkyō, London: Asahi Shimbun and British Museum Press.

HICKMAN, Money and Peter FETCHKO 1977, Japan Day by Day: An Exhibition in Honor of Edward Sylvester Morse. Salem, MA: Peabody Museum of Salem.

IKEDA Jirō; ŌNO Susumu (eds.) 1973, Nihon jinshuron, gengogaku, [=Ronshū Nihon bunka no kigen, dai go kan]. Tōkyō; Heibonsha. [池田次郎・大野晋 [編]: 『日本人種論, 言語学』 《論集日本 文化の起源 第五巻》, 東京: 平凡社.

IMAMURA Keiji (N.D.), Collections of Morse from the Shell Mounds of Omori. In: Ken SAKAMURA (ed.), Digital Museum 2000: Memory of Jōmon Period (

ISONO Naohide 1990, Contributions of Edward S. Morse to Developing Young Japan. In: Edward R. BEAUCHAMP and Akira IRIYE (eds.), Foreign Employees in Nineteenth-Century Japan. Boulder, San Francisco & London: Westview Press.

KREINER, Josef 1980, Heinrich Freiherr von Siebold, Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der japanischen Völkerkunde und Urgeschichte. In: Josef Kreiner (ed.), Beiträge zur Japanischen Ethnogenese. [Bonner Zeitschrift für Japanologie 2], pp. 147-203.

MORSE, Edward S. 1877, Traces of Early Man in Japan. In: Nature, Vol. XVII, p. 89.

MORSE Edward S. 1879a (2008), Traces of an early Race in Japan, In: The Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 14:1, pp. 257-266. (Reprinted below)

MORSE, Edward S. 1879b, Shell Mounds of Ōmori, Volume 1, Part 1 of the Memoirs of the Science Department, University of Tokio, Japan, Tōkyō.

MORSE, Edward S. 1880 (2008), Dolmens in Japan. In: The Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 16:5, pp. 593-601. (Reprinted below)

MORSE, Edward S. 1917, Japan Day by Day 1877, 1878-79, 1882-83. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. (Reprint: Atlanta (GA): Cherokee Publishing Company 1990).

OHYAMA Kashiwa 1930, Denkmal beim Muschelhaufen Ohmori zum Gedächtnis an Prof. Edward S. Morse. In: Zeitschrift für Praehistorie (Shizengaku-Zasshi), Vol. 2:1, pp. E3-E9.

SAHARA Makoto 1996, Firippu Furansu fon Shīboruto, musuko Hainrihhi fon Shīboruto to kindai Nihon kōkugaku no hajimari 佐原真, フィリップ フランツ フォン シーボルト、息子ハインリッヒ フォン シーボルトと近代日本考古学の始まり国立歴史民族博物館副館長 (German version: Philipp Franz v. Siebold und sein Sohn Heinrich von Siebold und der Anfang der modernen Japanischen Archaelogie),

SIEBOLD, Heinrich von 1878, Japanische Kjökkenmödding (dated July 29, 1878). Reprinted in: Josef Kreiner (ed.) 1980, Beiträge zur Japanischen Ethnogenese. [Bonner Zeitschrift für Japanologie 2], pp. 207-209.

SIEBOLD, Heinrich von 1879, Japanische Kjökkenmöddinger. In: Verhandlungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, pp. 231-234.

TANAKA, Stefan 2004, New Times in Modern Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



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