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The Haniwa are terracotta clay figures which were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun period (3rd to 6th century AD) of the history of Japan. Haniwa were created according to the wasumi technique, in which mounds of coiled clay were built up to shape the figure, layer by layer.
During the Kofun period, a highly aristocratic society with militaristic rulers developed. The cavalry wore iron armor, carried swords and other weapons, and used advanced military methods like those of Northeast Asia. Many of them are represented in haniwa figurines for funerary purposes.
The most important of the haniwa were found in southern Honshū and northern Kyūshū. Haniwa grave offerings were made in numerous forms, such as horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, houses, weapons, shields, sunshades, pillows, and male and female humans. Besides decorative and spiritual reasons of protecting the deceased in his afterlife, these figures also served as a sort of retaining wall for the burial mound.
Because these haniwa display the contemporary clothing, hairstyle, farming tools, and architecture, these sculptures are important as a historical archive of the Kofun Period.
The origin of haniwa started during the latter part of the Yayoi Era around the Kingdom of Kibi. During this time special earthenware figurines and bowls started to appear on top of the tombs of leaders. The early sculptures exceeded 1 meter (3 feet) in length. They consisted of a cylindrical portion which represented the torso, and a skirt-shaped portion at the base, which represented the legs. Many times a special insignia or pattern would be displayed on the torso. Sometimes an obi would be placed around the torso portion of the sculpture. These sculptures are thought to have been used as part of a funeral ritual. Other than the Kibi area, the only other place these sculptures were found was in the Izumo province.
During the latter part of the 3rd century AD, these sculptures started to appear on top of the imperial grave mounds in the Kinai region. During this time more elaborate haniwa would appear along with earthenware bowls. It is believed that the movement of these sculptures and haniwa from the Kibi region to the Kinai region is indicative of an increase in the importance.
Originally, the cylindrical type haniwa were set on top of the funeral mounds, so it is believed that they had a purpose in funeral rituals; however, as the haniwa became more developed, they were set towards the outside of the grave area, and it is thought that they were used as boundary markers to mark the borders of the gravesite.
There is a theory that the soul of the deceased would reside in the haniwa, as the earlier haniwa were placed on top of the funeral mounds. There are haniwa that are equipped with weapons and armor, and these are also thought to be containers for souls. The armor and weapons would serve the purpose of driving away evil spirits and protecting the buried ruler from calamity. Because the horse and animal shaped haniwa were normally neatly arranged into a line, it is believed that they were part of a sending-off ceremony.