Ancient meets ultra-modern in the nation’s restoration lab

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Ancient meets ultra-modern in the nation’s restoration lab


In the domain of cultural property, conservation means science and technology. Archaelogical knowledge alone does not guarantee restoration and repair ― x-ray analysis machines, electronic microscopes and 3D laser scanners are now seen as indispensable. Welcome to the world of cultural property conservation, where relics come face-to-face with state-of-the-art technology.
For instance, the remains of the “Naksan-sa Bronze Bell,” National Treasure No. 479, can be found at the Korean National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in Daejeon, South Chungcheong province. When a forest fire broke out in the mountainous Naksan Temple area in Gangwon province last year, numerous cultural properties, including this national treasure, were destroyed. In an attempt to restore the items, the institute relied on rubbed copies it had in store and analyses of surviving fragments. Later that year, a copy of the bronze bell was installed in the temple, and the long process of restoration reminded everyone just how difficult the task is ― but also that it can be done.
The laboratory for conserving stone architecture is filled with scientific equipment, ranging from hammers to a high-tech laser cleaner worth 140 million won ($140,000). The laser cleaner may look familiar to some people ― it’s the same cleaner used by dermatologists to remove moles. The laboratory uses it to clean old stone artifacts. The laser proved especially useful when Bukgwandaecheopbi, a stone monument commemorating the defeat of Japanese invaders in the 16th century, was returned by Japan at Korea’s request this year. Nearly unrecognizable at first, the stone relic was restored when the cement contaminants were removed with the laser, while the cement marks on the inscription were scraped off with dental tools.
The humanities and natural sciences overlap a great deal when it comes to the conservation and restoration of cultural properties. There are five members in the architectural stone conservation lab, each with a different specialty, such as chemistry, sculpture or art history. The conservation science lab handles the scientific applications, using a team of 24 researchers with diverse backgrounds in chemistry, biology, biological engineering and environmental science.
To enter the laboratory, located at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, central Seoul, requires going through three security screening processes. The spacious hall is divided into 25 rooms, each for a different material type. An average of 1,000 cultural properties are repaired and restored in the lab every year. When the museum relocated to Yongsan from Gyeongbok Palace in October 2005, the lab was fitted with the most up-to-date equipment possible, and each room was equipped with a gas analyzer, freeze drier and fumigator.
Relics are polished in the metal room ― a special exhibition coming up in May at Howuchong, for instance, needs items from the first burial tomb uncovered by Korean archaelogists in 1946, in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province, to look their shiniest. Park Hak-su, a researcher at the museum, puts together broken pieces of a bronze jar excavated at the site 60 years ago. Every piece is checked with an x-ray for damage and erosion, and a special adhesive is used to glue the pieces together, he says.
The porcelain room also has a part to play in the Howuchong exhibition. Hwang Hyun-seong, a researcher there, said relics that could not be repaired in the past are now being restored. He pointed at a broken ceramic jar. “It’s easier to repair earthenware than chinaware because it takes a long time to sort out the colors for the latter,” he noted.
In recent years a greater effort has been made to preserve cultural property, even analyzing soil samples and human bones. Technology has kept pace, moving from simple restoration tools to more complex tools to analyze ancient lifestyles. For example, the Korean National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage carried out a scientific study in 2005, accumulating data for analysis of ancient soils excavated at Wanggung-ri, Iksan city, North Jeolla province. They were able to obtain organic sources and discover the presence of coprostanol, an indicator of fecal contamination, confirming that this area had been an ancient latrine. Until then, Wanggung-ri had been thought to have been used as a storage area for grains and seeds.
The museum’s curator, Jeong Yong-jae, said the reason nobody was able to uncover remains of toilets in the former capital, Gyeongju, is that soil samples weren’t considered cultural properties. “Nowadays, we can restore the ancient dietary lifestyle by analyzing the chemical composition and parasites of human excrement,” he said. Even human excrement is now recognized as a cultural heritage item.
DNA analyses of human bones, teeth and hair excavated at archaelogical sites has also become widely used in recent years. The tests are useful in identifying biological relationships, as well as the climates, diets and lifestyles in the past ― one of the unprecedented results of combining bio-technology and archaelogy. The institute plans to track down the “origin of the Korean race” this year, by analyzing some 1,000 ancient human bones in Mongolia. The budget for this project is an estimated 1 billion won ($1 million).
“Once the migration route of the Korean race is discovered, we should be able to develop a sound theory to combat China’s historical claims of Goguryeo as part of the Northeast Asian Project,” said Seo Min-seok, a curator at the institute.
The institute’s policies regarding cultural property have recently put a greater emphasis on prevention and research rather than repair and restoration. This year, the institute secured a budget of 4.4 billion won ($4.4 million) for research and development from the Ministry of Science and Technology. It is looking to promote the development of supplementary materials and a uniform system for prevention of disasters, as well as standardization of traditional techniques.
The institute’s manager of conservation science, Kim Yong-han, said cultural properties are not antiquated relics, but are instead products of modern technology. “This year, our goal is to prevent damage and deterioration to various cultural properties in a more systematic manner,” he said.

by Park Jeong-ho
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