Boy, oh, boy, what a find!The mummy of a child who lived more than 350 years ago, on display in a climate controlled glass coffin through Saturday at the Seok Joo-seun Memorial Folk Arts Museum, Dankook University in Seoul, was never intended to have survived this long. To make sure that the boy's soul makes its way to nirvana this time, those involved in the investigation of the mummy even held a proper Buddhist ritual.
The mummy, who is being called for the time being Dan-ung, was discovered in November 2001 during a reburial process at the family gravesite of the Haepyeong clan of the Yun family in Yangju, Gyeonggi province. The unmarked grave had been dug up accidentally to make room for road expansion. About 1.8 meters into the digging, workers hit a small wooden coffin. Finding clothes inside the coffin in a conserved state, the Yun family called a team of historians to the site.
Earlier, in June 2001, the Yun family had cremated several mummies and their relics that they had found during the reburial process. "The family realized only after the fact that these were valuable historical materials. This time, they determined that this mummy would be donated for study," said Park Sung-sil, professor of traditional costumes at Dankook University Graduate School, who was present at the unveiling of the mummy.
When the investigative team arrived on the scene the next day, they found a pile of relics wrapped in white cotton cloth lying on the ground next to the opened coffin. A pile of frozen clothes was found under the wrap. The workers who dug up the coffin said that they had found the coffin filled with water. "The clothes were all stuck together in a frozen state. It took quite sometime to peel off the clothes layer by layer using the warmth of our hands to thaw the clothes," said Ms. Park.
When the final layer was removed, a little child's face emerged with neatly braided black hair. This was the first time that a mummified body of a child had been found in Korea. For Ms. Park, an expert in old costumes, it was a great moment of discovery. "We had never seen actual children's clothing from the Joseon Dynasty other than those that were made around 1910," she said. The Yi family ruled Joseon from 1392 to 1910.
Following the Korean custom of not giving a proper funeral ceremony for children －－ in the Confucian worldview, a child who precedes his parents in death is not a filial child and the parents, feeling guilty about their child's death, were reluctant to publicize a child's death －－ the mummy did not don the requisite burial clothes. Instead, adult clothes, both male and female, wrapped the boy's body as a shroud. Over the shroud, the boy was dressed on top with two layers of boy's quilted jackets, of sizes too large for the mummy's body. The boy wore a man's silk pants and had cotton socks on his feet. Also found in the pine coffin were a young boy's cap and an infant's jacket.
In the absence of any markings at the gravesite or written records inside the coffin, these clothes would play a key role in dating and identifying the mummy. While the mummy was most likely a member of the Yun family since it was found in the Yun family grave site, and the first-ever genetic testing of a 350 year-old mummy confirmed that it was indeed a member of the Yun family, it was vital to find out when the boy was buried in order to identify him.
Clothing was widely used to date mummies in previous findings but Dan-ung caused a unique problem. "We had never seen any actual children's clothing going back this far," said Ms. Park. She was able to determine that the pants worn by the boy was of a style that emerged after the Hideyoshi invasion of Korea that took place from 1592 to 1598.
Comparing the long adult outer jacket worn by the boy with artifacts from previously discoveries, Ms. Park confirmed that it could not have been made after the mid-17th century.
Looking at their genealogical chart, the Yun clan narrowed down the possible identity of the mummy to Yun Ho. Yun Ho is the only person recorded in the 1600s without a descendent. Yun Ho's older brother was born in 1673, which would place Yun Ho's birth sometime between 1675 and 1677.
Upon examining the state of development of the teeth and the carpal bone, a team of anatomy specialists －－ a radiologist, forensic medicine specialists, a clinical pathologist and various medical doctors －－ determined Dan-ung to be between 4.5 years and 6.6 years old at the time of his death. Hence, the boy's death would have occurred sometime between 1680 and 1683.
Drowning, a leading cause of childhood death, was ruled out as a probable cause here because of the absence of diatoms, organisms found in water, in the lung tissue. An unusual finding in the lung tissue was the presence of a blood clot within the bronchus. "This means that there was aspirated fresh blood. A number of conditions, such as nasal bleeding, an injury of the oral cavity, or more serious diseases such as tuberculosis, or pneumonia could be suggested for the presence of the fresh blood," said Han Gil-ro, a forensic medicine specialist at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation.
The abnormal skin lesions found on the mummy's arms suggest the possibility of smallpox. Although smallpox was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980, it was a common childhood disease in Dan-ung's time. "Although the boy probably died from a secondary infection, the round scars found in the arms correspond with the eruption pattern of smallpox," said Dr. Han. A DNA testing for smallpox virus is being planned, according to Dr. Han.
However, whether the mummy is indeed that of Yun Ho is still inconclusive. The name Yun Ho in the genealogical chart is preceded by a title of a government official. It is also curious that for a whole century there is only one person registered in the genealogical chart without a descendent at a time when childhood deaths were common.
"The clothes found in the coffin were too shabby to have belonged to a member of the powerful and rich family," said Ms. Park. According to the genealogical chart, Yun Ho's ancestors completed building a large house, the largest house a yangban, or the literati class, was allowed to have, in the previous century.
Even when the exact date of the burial is known, as is the case with a mummy of a woman with an intact fetus who died in childbirth, discovered in September in Paju, Gyeonggi province, it can still take months of sleuthing to identify the mummy.
Found inside the coffin of the mummy dug up from the grave site of Papyeong clan of Yun family, a powerful clan that produced several high ranking officials and queens during the Joseon dynasty, was a piece of paper with the month and year of death: October 1566.
The mummy, in her early-to-mid-20s at the time of death, was buried at her family burial site, rather than the burial site of her husband's family. She had come to her parents' home for the birth, as was the custom of the time, and when she died, her body was not returned to the husband's family. The fact that her body was not returned indicates that the woman was probably a mistress, not a proper wife. For a daughter of the powerful family to have been a mistress, she herself also must have been an illegitimate child, according to Choi Gwang-shik, head of the Korea University Museum.
Although the investigation into the identity of the mummy is expected to be completed by the end of the month, close examination of the genealogical chart has already raised questions about the accepted birth order of Queen Munjeong's brothers. Fragments of letters found inside the coffin may yet reveal some previous unknown historical episodes.
Although these mummies were never intended to be preserved for hundreds of years, for Koreans believe that incomplete disintegration of the ancestors' bodies result in misfortunes, the burial practice in the medieval Joseon Dynasty seems to have caused the accidental mummifications.
In medieval Joseon, the dead were laid in duplicate wood coffins, one inside the other. The outer coffin was surrounded by a lime-soil mixture that hardened over time, and the inner space within the outer coffin would become nearly completely isolated from the outer space with no flow of air.
Although pollen found inside Dan-ung's coffin indicates that he was buried in May, the body was wrapped in several layers of quilted winter clothing. "The parents probably wrapped him up using their clothes to keep him warm in the cold, dark underworld," said Ms. Park. "If there is one thing that we can learn from this mummy, it is that the parents' love is universal and ageless across time."
by Kim Hoo-ran