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Goguryeo life saved in its tombs

June 25,2004
The Unesco World Heritage Committee is getting ready to decide whether a number of relics from the Goguryeo Dynasty, mostly old tombs, should be included in the World Heritage List. The 28th session of the Unesco convention in Suzhou, China,will be held from Monday to July 7.
North Korea filed an application for 63 old tombs of the dynasty, including the first Jinpari tomb, near Pyeongyang, while China applied to have 21 sites included, including the mountain fortress walls in Mount Onyeo, the capital city and the royal tomb of the dynasty.
According to Samguksagi, a history book written in the 12th century, the Goguryeo Dynasty was founded 37 years before the time of Christ. North Korea estimated that the dynasty began 200 years before what’s recorded in the history book.
The dynasty flourished until it collapsed under the force of the Silla Dynasty of Korea and the Tang Dynasty of China. The Goguryeo Dynasty is considered influential in East Asian history.
North Korea recently allowed the JoongAng Ilbo and MBC-TV to see sections of the wall paintings in the four tombs of the Goguryeo Dynasty located near Pyeongyang. The tombs are Deokheungri tomb in Deokheung village, South Pyeongan province; Gangseodaemyo and Gangseojungmyo (“myo” means tomb in Korean) in nearby Sammyo village; and the first Jinpari tomb in Mujin village in South Pyeongan province. It was the first time that North Korea allowed Korean journalists to photograph the first Jinpari tomb.
The lights from the video camera revealed images of gatekeepers holding a spear on each side of the alley in the tomb.
The tomb facing the south has a main hall on its innermost north side, and on the north wall is a painting of Hyeonmu, a god governing the direction of north, a turtle-headed snake. Only the images of a left leg and turtle’s back are visible.
On each side of the turtle-headed snake are paintings of pine trees. Above the images of the pine trees are flying clouds and a dragon soaring to the sky.
The Deokheungri tomb has rich wall paintings that depict the lives of people during the Goguryeo Dynasty. The wall paintings have ink scripts that indicate the year they were created and can give a clue as to when the other tombs with wall paintings were constructed.
The paintings indicate that the tomb was built in A.D. 408, but almost 1,600 years later, they remain as clear as photographs. The pigments used in the paintings cannot be analyzed even with the technologies of modern science.
On the northern wall, the grim face of Jin, a high-ranking Goguryeo official, seems alive as he greets 13 general governors, escorted by his servants on each side.
Although many of the images in the lower walls were damaged, the faces and the mustaches on them are as vivid as if they were painted recently. The images of the Great Bear, and the Gyeonu and Jiknyeo, Chinese mythological characters who had their own constellations, add to the dramatic effects.
Gangseodaemyo and Gangseojungmyo do not have decorations. Instead, they have paintings of four gods governing the four different directions on their granite walls.
Here lies one of the masterpieces of the Goguryeo Dynasty’s tomb wall paintings: Gangseodaemyo, with its painting of a blue dragon, and Gangseojungmyo with that of a white tiger. The blue dragon, with its mouth agape and glaring eyes, painted with five different colors, which creates a three-dimensional effect that makes the mythical creature look almost real.
The tomb wall paintings are important in helping scholars understand history by filling many holes in written records. The wall paintings are windows through which one can get a glimpse of the customs, religions, philosophy and the technology of the time.
The countrymen of Goguryeo began drawing wall paintings in the third century when tombs were fashioned out of stone. The number of discovered Goguryeo tombs with wall paintings is 96 ― one in Liaoning province of China, 23 in Jilin province and 72 in North Korea.
North Korea has made efforts to unearth old tombs since Korea’s independence from Japan in 1945 as a way to promote the spirit of independence.
North Korea has protected the old tombs of the Goguryeo Dynasty as national treasures, but due to a lack of funds, it was only able to shield them from natural exposure. For Deokheungri tomb, glass walls were built to protect the walls, but there was no equipment to control temperature and humidity.
“The best way to protect the tombs is to shield them with lead dividers and to pump nitrogen inside the tomb,” said Lee Seung-hyeok, a North Korean official. “But it would cost $2 million for each tomb.
“There is no border between North and South Korea in dealing with the Goguryeo Dynasty. We hope that South Korea takes special interest in helping preserve the cultural properties.”
Choi Jong-taek, a professor at Korea University, saw some of the damage. “Inside the Deokheungri tomb and the first Jinpari tomb, water was leaking from the ceiling and the wall paintings were corroded.”
“Many parts of the wall paintings and limestone in the first Jinpari tomb fell off. Due to leaking water, stalactites have formed,” he said.
Last year, the Unesco committee in Paris decided not to screen the wall paintings of the Goguryeo tombs because some of the relics were not preserved in their original conditions. Also, North Korea did not allow the members of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an advisory body of Unesco to approach the tombs.
“Tomb wall paintings are not for display,” said Mr. Lee. “These are decorations that were meant to be buried and closed.”
South Korea now has registered seven sites on the World Heritage List, including Jongmyo and the collection of printing plates produced during the Goryeo Dynasty, which are kept in Haeinsa temple.


by Lee Man-hoon, Chung Jae-suk


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