OTSU--Mysterious fossils unearthed here 200 years ago that were identified as “bones of a dragon” turned a farmer into a local celebrity and generated interest from even the domain lord.

The fossils later turned out to be the remains of an elephant species.

But the initial reaction was so great that the Otsu municipal government on May 15 designated as cultural properties paintings and documents on the discovery and other details of the dragon bones.

“The materials are extremely important because they show how people of the time reacted to the discovery of unknown fossils,” said an official of the city’s education board.

The records--three paintings and 28 documents produced between the Edo Period (1603-1867) and the Showa Era (1926-1989)--were preserved by generations of the Ryo family. The family’s name means “dragon,” and it was bestowed on the farmer after his discovery in what is now northern Otsu city.

The farmer, named Ichirobe, was cultivating a hill when he unearthed the fossils in 1804 in Ikadachi Minami-Sho village in the Zeze domain.

Ichirobe planned to display the fossils under the eaves of his home, but the remains’ unique shapes and other features drew considerable attention among the locals.

Word spread widely about the finding and reached the domain lord, Honda Yasusada (1769-1806). After they were presented to Yasusada, a Confucian scholar and others examined the remains and concluded they were the bones of a dragon.

With no technology to scientifically determine the origin of the fossils, no one reportedly doubted they had come from an imaginary beast.

Ichirobe was awarded the family name of “ryo,” and a small shrine dubbed Fukuryushi was erected at the discovery site.

At Yasusada’s request, a painter from the noted Maruyama school provided an illustration of the fossils for a piece titled “Ryukotsu Zu.” A Confucian scholar added a description of how they were discovered above the painting.

A painting titled “Fukuryukotsu no Zu” was created by another artist commissioned by the domain. A document called “Zeze Han Tasshigaki” states the domain gave the farmland around Fukuryushi to Ichirobe.

These materials were among the items recently designated as important cultural properties.

The “dragon” bones were later examined by German geologist Edmund Naumann (1854-1927), who was known for his research into pachyderm fossils, and other experts in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). They concluded that the remains were from an elephant species that lived around 500,000 years ago.

The fossilized bones were moved to Tokyo and are now kept at the National Museum of Nature and Science.

The paintings and documents associated with the fossils were passed down by Ichirobe’s offspring as family treasures.

Ikuko Ryo, 78, a descendant of Ichirobe, said the materials were usually stored in the family’s warehouse but put on display in the “tokonoma” alcove in December to January every year to commemorate the discovery in November on the old calendar.

But as she became increasingly elderly, Ryo commissioned the Otsu City Museum of History to preserve the records several years ago.

She said she welcomes the recent inclusion of her family’s treasures on the city’s cultural property list.

“The recognition made me feel they are not only my family’s possessions,” said Ryo, smiling. “I am very pleased that the materials my family has conserved over generations for 200 years were unexpectedly designated as cultural assets.”