NONOICHI, Ishikawa Prefecture--A piece of pottery with an engraving of a smiling female figure was recently unearthed here that is believed to date back more than 1,100 years.

The artifact was found in the city's Suematsu district on the site of a ruined Buddhist temple, which experts believe was founded in the second half of the seventh century during the Asuka Period (592-710), the Nonoichi City Board of Education said Oct. 31.

The Suematsu temple ruins are designated as a “historic site” by the central government.

The earthenware is believed to be a fragment of a “gato” (earthen pagoda) pottery work made sometime around the ninth century, education board officials said. It is the first pictorial clay pagoda to have been unearthed in Japan.

Some experts believe the figure represents a celestial nymph who serves the Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya Bodhisattva), a Buddhist deity. The finding could provide insight into the extent of the spread of Buddhism in ancient times and aspects of the cult of earthen pagodas.

The artifact, with a plate-like shape measuring 19 centimeters tall, 9.5 cm wide and 1.5 cm thick, is believed to belong to the first tier (ground floor) of an earthen pagoda. A female figure, measuring about 17 cm tall and 7 cm wide, was found engraved with a pointed tool on the front face of the first tier.

The long-haired and smiling figure holds a “hossu,” a ritual implement with bundled hair, in her hand. She wears a long dress called a “mo,” with vertical stripes and shoes with upward-bent tips.

“The smiling figure looks lovely,” said Keiji Matsumura, director-general of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in the city of Nara. “The artifact is valuable evidence of one specific aspect of the cult of earthen pagodas, which relates to a desire to go to Maitreya’s Pure Land. It also shows that the cult of Maitreya had penetrated the Hokuriku region.”

The earthen pagoda fragment is being exhibited at the Nonoichi City Furusato History Museum through Dec. 16.