Global Perspectives: East Anglian heritage is ‘big in Japan’

PUBLISHED: 12:27 09 December 2017 | UPDATED: 09:16 11 December 2017

Dr Sam Nixon and (R) Dr Simon Kaner at the Norwich based Sainsbury Institute. Picture: Ian Burt

Dr Sam Nixon and (R) Dr Simon Kaner at the Norwich based Sainsbury Institute. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

Six of East Anglia’s most famous archaeological sites are making waves on the other side of the world. Trevor Heaton reports on how our heritage really is ‘big in Japan’.

Grime's Graves: Thousands of flint tools were shaped like this for 'export' from East Anglia.Grime's Graves: Thousands of flint tools were shaped like this for 'export' from East Anglia.

We hear a lot about how the world is shrinking, thanks to technology, the internet, and massive global companies. But the ancients were there first, as an innovative project created in Norwich is demonstrating.

You’ll have heard of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the UEA campus. You might not be so familiar, though, with its ‘little sister’.

The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (to give its full name) was also set up in Norwich through the generosity of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury of the famous supermarket family.

It’s tucked away in The Close, that village-inside-a-city that wraps itself round Norwich Cathedral like a giant comfort blanket.

And right now, the institute is reaching out around the world to bring people together and bang the drum for our region’s magnificent story.

It’s called ‘Global Perspectives: exploring the international significance of East Anglia’s archaeological heritage’. It sounds a bit of a mouthful, but the idea really couldn’t be simpler: that we are linked with the rest of the world through a common - or similar - heritage. Their history is our history, and ours is theirs.

Take Grime’s Graves, for example. These flint mines were the home of our first ‘industrial revolution’, where thousands upon thousands of high-grade flint tools were shaped and shipped round the region and beyond.

Over in Japan, at roughly the same time, they were doing the same. The axes of the Hoshikuso mines were made from obsidian – a dark glassy rock formed from lava – rather than flint but the similarities led to the creation of the world’s first-ever twinned archaeology sites in 2016, based round the nearby towns of Thetford and Nagawa-machi.

Grime’s Graves joins Happisburgh, Medieval Norwich, Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk, Flag Fen and Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, and Sutton Hoo in Suffolk to make six key regional sites in the Global Perspectives project.

And although we don’t have any World Heritage Sites – yet - in East Anglia, all these places are big-hitters internationally, from Happisburgh’s unimaginably ancient footprints to the evocative Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

One of the first surprises about the project – which is being supported by a range of organisations from Norfolk Museums Service to Historic England – is just how popular British archaeology is in Japan, as Dr Simon Kaner explains.

Dr Kaner, who shares his time between the Institute (where he is Head of the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage) and UEA (where he is Director of the Centre for Japanese Studies), is project director.

He has been working closely on the project with Dr Sam Nixon, Senior Research Associate at the Sainsbury Institute.

“There has always been a tremendous interest in Japan for British archaeology,” Dr Kaner said. “Two of the founding fathers of Japanese archaeology spent time in London studying – one in the 1880s, 1890s, the other just before the First World War. There was a very early connection.”

And one William Gowland, who ran the Osaka Mint from the 1860s to 1890s showed the connection could go the other way too. A keen amateur digger, he investigated around 400 ancient burial mounds, many of which are now off-limits to modern archaeologists. That makes his body of finds – which he sold to the British Museum – of key interest to Japanese researchers.

There’s a lot more to the project than an interest in the past. We have an abiding cultural fascination with all things Japanese, from Hello Kitty to manga, from J-pop to tamagotchi, from The Seven Samurai to Godzilla.

That’s reflected locally in the big interest in the Institute’s monthly lectures on its culture and history, which regularly attract audiences of 100-plus – “I don’t think there’s anything quite like it outside London and, frankly, I’m not sure there’s anything like it in London either,” Dr Kaner added.

We’re going to hear more about Japan in the next few years… a lot more. It’s where the Olympics will be returning in 2020, back in Tokyo after 56 years. Before then, it’s the venue for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

And 2019-20 will be a UK-Japanese Cultural Year, while in 2020 the Sainbury Centre will look at the parallels between Japan’s history and the era of Sutton Hoo.

All of which makes Global Perspectives even more apposite.

There have been many academic projects over the years looking at the comparisons between the countries – for example, in 2004, looking at the way medieval cities developed. Then in 2010 the Sainsbury Centre had an exhibition on Japanese prehistory which also featured the Grime’s Graves ‘goddess’ chalk figure, which set off a chain of events which led to that world-first twinning.

“We wanted to expand this idea of a comparative approach. We managed to secure a year’s funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, working with six sites in East Anglia that are of international significance,” Dr Kaner explained.

Over the summer there were open days at every one. And people flocked to find out more. “Every single site had a lot of interest.”

That has led to the creation of films, a successful exhibition at The Forum in Norwich with films and VR headsets, a new website – complete with manga-style imagery - and ‘virtual postcards’ for people to send. “We are adding to these [visitor] experiences with that international dimension. It can never replace going to the sites, or handling an artefact, but it complements them.”

The success of an exhibition about our heritage at one of Norwich’s most iconic modern buildings was particularly gratifying for Dr Kaner and his team. “There was a lot of curiosity. That was all really rather wonderful.”

For the future the plan is to develop the project into a ‘MOOC’ – an open-access study course via the web – with UEA as its mentor, about how to globalise your heritage.

Dr Kaner is also looking at running a joint project with the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society for the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

The overarching message of Global Perspectives – that we need to think about how heritage can bring us together – can only be a good thing in a world where fault lines are opening up on national, religious or political lines.

And those links really are there, and have been for a very long time. You just have to look at two startling discoveries in recent years for the evidence. A bronze Buddha turned up a few years ago on a Viking site in Sweden. But that has to be topped by the even more astonishing discovery last year of Roman coins…. in Japan.

So it looks like Walt Disney was right: it really is a small world after all. And as the Sainsbury Institute is proving, it probably always has been.

You can explore the Global Perspectives project at

If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Eastern Daily Press. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Eastern Daily Press