Baekje puzzle: New pieces are unearthed

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Baekje puzzle: New pieces are unearthed

GONGJU, South Chungcheong
For years, archaeologists have been trying to fill in the blanks about the Baekje Dynasty (18 B.C to A.D. 660), which by conquering parts of China and Japan were arguably Korea’s most influential rulers. But researchers have never been able to reconstruct a complete picture of Baekje, which was destroyed by the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 688) after two centuries of unending conflict.
In piecing together Baekje history, archaeologists have been puzzled as to why major artifacts from the dynasty were rarely found in the city of Gongju on the northern side of the Geum River.
Gongju was the Baekje capital for only 64 years toward the end of its existence, but it is the site of one of Asia’s top archaeological finds, the burial chamber of King Munyeong and his queen, which provided a stunning collection of ornaments and funerary objects. Since its discovery in 1971, however, archaeologists have been unable to find any other significant evidence of Baekje’s Gongju era.
The absence of a big find over the last 30 years belies the city’s claim to be a “center of culture and history.” This leaves largely undocumented the dynasty’s retreat south from Songpa under pressure from the Goguryeo Dynasty, which along with the Silla is well-chronicled. Among Korean scholars the gaps have been likened to a crisis of the academy. They blame the government for not supporting their research, undermining Gongju’s rich cultural heritage.
Fueling a recent upsurge in interest in the area’s archaeology are indications that a number of influential Baekje figures moved into the river’s northern region well before Baekje made Gongju its final stronghold.
Early this month archaeologists discovered six major tombs close to each other in a small town of Suchon. The tombs contained several Chinese artifacts and other valuables that suggested the presence of nobility. Judging from the contents in each burial chamber and their layout, archaeologists speculated that the tombs were constructed around the early 5th century. The news has caused a major stir in the academic community.
“This will be a monumental archive,” says Kim Jeong-gil, a historian who is the project adviser. “Now we know as a fact that some key people who held enough power to wear gold-plated copper shoes and gold-plated copper hats lived in this area before the Baekje dynasty retreated south.”
Choi Byeong-hyeon, a history professor at Sungsil University, said, “It will be a question of time before historians find out the details of the tombs, such as whether they were built while those buried there were alive, according to the customs of many ancient nobilities. Had the people who are buried here actually lived in the region? If they did, how did they rule the area? If not, where did they come from?”
Based on a preliminary investigation, historians cautiously suggest that ancient Korea, 1,600 years ago, might have already developed a system of central government where royal commanders and warriors were dispatched to city states to look after local affairs autonomously, similar to how local government systems work today.
So far in Gongju, archaeologists have found a pair of gold earrings, gold-plated copper shoes and hats, earthenware, beads, swords and celadon porcelain from China, which experts say are finds equivalent to “a Persian carpet” or an “Italian marble couch.”
For Lee Hoon, a senior archaeologist leading the research team from the Chungnam Development Institute, the recent discovery would make up for the academic debt his team owes scholars of ancient history.
“It’s just amazing. As an archaeologist, you are lucky if you witness a discovery of such a scale once in your lifetime,” he says. “Based on what we’ve found so far, this project will take another year to complete.”
The site survey of Suchon began in May, before the city of Gongju began clearing the land as part of a major redevelopment project to build a large factory compound.
One of the first articles the team found was gold-plated copper shoes ― the first complete pair of this kind to be found anywhere on the peninsula. A few Korean museums have gold-plated copper shoes in their collections, but their origins are not known. The team has also found three pieces of Chinese porcelain, which is rarely found in the tombs of civilians. All three pieces came from one burial site, a sign that the person might have held a high diplomatic or royal position.
Lee Nam-seok, director of the Gongju National Museum, says that based on the burial chamber’s layout, the site might turn out to be a family tomb.
In one earthen burial chamber, the archaeologists found a pair of golden earrings, what appeared to be jade hairpins, a jade necklace and a hair garment peppered with tiny red beads. The jewels were fastened to the ground like an elaborate portrait of a person. Judging from the size of the head and the height of the tomb, experts believe the site was a mortuary for an upper-class woman.
Lee Hae-jun, a researcher at the Chungnam Development Institute, says he has seen a similar image of a woman wearing a veil with red beads on a Goguryeo mural.
“Once we confirm the status of the woman this will be an important source to find out how female nobility wore their hair during that period,” Mr. Lee said.
But Lee Geon-mu, a director of the National Museum of Korea, voices criticism about the academic community’s unbridled enthusiasm for the discovery.
“It’s not appropriate for archaeologists to try to draw a historical analysis,” Mr. Lee says. “Archaeologists should focus strictly on the site instead of relying on the written records.”
With the scale of the excavation growing ever larger, officials in Gongju announced last week that they would consider proposing that the national government purchase the site where the tombs were discovered and the surrounding area -- about 4,290 square meters, or 1 acre, and declare it a special research zone. If the proposal fails, the city government would have to spend as much as 5 billion won, or $4.1 million, according to one city official.
A lack of committed support from Gongju residents also is hindering the project, some say. The delayed redevelopment is upsetting those eager to boost the city’s economy.
“The government should build more factories and produce merchandise,” says a taxi driver who gave his name only as Mr. Choi. “Of course you dig up land and there will be artifacts. But what do we get in return?”
Mr. Lee, the archaeologist, contends that the city is “flooded with valuable tombs.” He points to the area beyond Suchon.
“We know they are there,” he says. “This would be a small display of an early Baekje period.”

by Park Soo-mee
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