TOTTORI--A wooden doll with a Buddhist face that would take the blame for disasters has been unearthed in this western city.

The human-shaped piece of wood is probably a “hitogata,” or "scapegoat doll," which was used in purification ceremonies or other arcane Shinto rituals.

The dolls could, for example, effectively take cosmic blame for a smallpox epidemic, but it is quite rare that a Buddhist visage is found on such objects.

It is believed that an area near the site may have hosted a religious center that blended Shinto and Buddhism.

The object was unearthed at the Aoya-Yokogi archaeological site in Tottori. The site has also produced a panel painting of a group of female figures, which bears close resemblance to the brightly colored mural found in the Takamatsuzuka burial mound in Asuka, Nara Prefecture.

The mural in the mound, attributed to the late seventh century or the early eighth century, includes the famous group image of the so-called “Asuka beauties” and has been designated a national treasure.

Hitogata dolls were used, for example, in Shinto rites called “o-harae” (great purification), which were conducted to save Japan’s capital from impurity during the Nara (710-784) and Heian (794-1185) periods, explained Shigeru Ohira, a collaborative research fellow of ritual archaeology with the Historical Institute of Hyogo Prefecture under the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History.

“It is possible to hypothesize that extraordinary o-harae sessions were held to contain epidemics, such as smallpox, which could have been introduced by foreigners who were visiting Japan in large numbers by way of the Sea of Japan at the time,” he added. “That could explain why many hitogata dolls have been unearthed along the Sea of Japan coast. Elements of Buddhism may have been mixed into Shinto during the o-harae sessions.”

The wooden strip was unearthed during a study in fiscal 2015, said officials with the Tottori prefectural center for buried cultural properties. The panel painting of a group of women was also found during the study in that fiscal year.

The visage was found on an upper part of the strip, which measures 18 centimeters long, 3.1 cm wide and 6 millimeters thick. Experts believe it likely represents the image of Nyorai (Tathagata), a Buddhist deity, as suggested by its features such as the big earlobes and the three characteristic chin wrinkles.

The strip likely dates from sometime between the late seventh century and the latter half of the 10th century.