Archaeologists have been carrying out excavations at Katsuren castle since 2013. © wochit News / YouTube
The first-ever discovery of ancient Roman artifacts in Japan has perplexed archaeologists who are searching for answers as to how the coins ended up on Okinawa Island.
Uruma city’s board of education announced the discovery beneath the ruins of Katsuren Castle this week saying the coins are believed to date back to the the third or fourth century, Asahi reports.
Archaeologists working on the site originally wondered if the coins were left there by tourists as a hoax but Toshio Tsukamoto, a researcher from the Gangoji Temple Cultural Properties Department, recognised the coins straight away.
"I'd come to analyze artifacts like Japanese samurai armor that had been found there when I spotted the coins," Tsukamoto, told CNN. "I'd been on excavation sites in Egypt and Italy and had seen a lot of Roman coins before, so I recognized them immediately."
The coins have eroded over time leaving the designs very difficult to decipher, however X-ray analysis revealed an image of Constantine I, who ruled Rome from 324 to 337 AD, and a soldier holding a spear.
The age of the artifacts only deepens the mystery as the construction of Katsuren Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, didn’t get underway until the 13th century.
Further excavations on the site uncovered six other coins which date back to the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century.
Okinawa had a thriving trade with southeast Asia and China between the 14th and 16th centuries and Katsuren Castle was an important center of commerce during that time. The Uruma Board of Education described the coins as “precious historical material suggesting a link between Okinawa and the Western world,”The Japan Times reports.
It is quite reasonable to expect Roman coins to reach Japan in the late 17th or early 18th century. Vasco Da Gama first reached India in 1497 or 1498 opening trade between Europe and the subcontinent, and European exploration of southeast Asia began in the next century. But oriental merchants had been trading with northeast Africa, including Egypt, as well as in the Persian Gulf long before Da Gama.
It would have been a remarkable accomplishment if Japanese sailors had sailed through Malacca Strait, rounded India, and reached the Red Sea more than a thousand years earlier. The feat would be akin to the Vikings reaching Newfoundland some 600 or 700 years later and 500 years before Columbus or Da Gama.
"It is a strange and interesting find. We don't think that there is a direct link between the Roman empire and Katsuren castle, but the discovery confirms how this region had trade relations with the rest of Asia," a spokesperson from the board of education said to CNN.