Southern eyes get a glimpse of Northern masterpieces

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Southern eyes get a glimpse of Northern masterpieces


A mythical creature resembling turtles and snakes tangled around each other appeared in the dim light of the tomb in Honam-ri, near Pyongyang. The painting is around 1,500 years old, having been created as part of a royal resting place of the Goguryeo Kingdom (B.C. 37 to A.D. 668). The early 6th-century tomb, known as Sasin, (Four Deities), is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but until recently, no South Korean had ever seen it.
The South Korean historians were part of a 20-person team assembled by North Korea to report on the status of such sites and to help preserve them. The team inspected eight tombs in Pyongyang and South Phyongan province from April 19 to May 2. In all, the team will assess the 63 ancient tombs that were added to the list of World Heritage Sites in July 2004, and issue a full report by 2008. The team also includes specialists from the National Cultural Properties Research Institute in Seoul.
In 427, King Jangsu moved Goguryeo’s capital to what is now Pyongyang, and the area around the city has a great deal of artworks from the period. There are about 70 tombs with murals in the city and in Hwanghae province, in addition to 30 more tombs in Jian, China, which was part of the kingdom’s territory.


Looking at the Jinpha-ri Tomb No. 4 on April 23, Hong Jong-uk, a pigment specialist at the National Cultural Properties Research Institute, found himself fascinated by the vivid colors of its wall paintings. The tomb is near King Tongmyong’s Tomb, 22 kilometers (13 miles) southeast of Pyongyang. North Koreans think the tomb belonged to General Ondal and Princess Pyeonggang, two characters in the famous tale of the Three Kingdoms, the Samguksagi. Near King Tongmyong’s Tomb are other 16 Goguryeo-era tombs, all registered as World Heritage Sites.
The Jinpha-ri Tomb No. 4, however, was in poor condition. With the exception of the lotus and screen patterns on the ceiling, the other paintings were difficult to recognize. The lotus patterns painted on both sides of a corridor were remarkably clear, though. The wall paintings were damaged, but their basic outline could be assumed through other historical sources. Among them was a sparkling cross, apparently painted with gold powder (later x-rays revealed that it was not actually gold). The same gold-colored paint was also found on the stone bases of pillars and in constellation patterns on the ceiling. Tomb-robbers, however, had badly marred the work while trying to scrape off the powder.
“The people of Goguryeo were brilliant at using colors,” said Lee Tae-ho, a professor at Myongji University in Seoul. “They used red, yellow and green to create beautiful works of harmony. The fact that the colors didn’t fade throughout [Korea’s] painful history of wars and colonization shows what technical skill and wisdom the Goguryeo people had.” Apparently forgetting about ancient Egypt and Minos, Mr. Lee said Goguryeo developed and completed colorful wall paintings earlier than other countries.


Driving 90 minutes southwest of Pyongyang on April 27, the team arrived at the Susan-ri tomb, constructed in the late 5th century in Kangso county, South Phyongan province. In the wall painting is a grinning gatekeeper, his teeth clearly visible. His mission may have been to protect the tomb, but he looks far from imposing. Another painting is of an acrobat juggling balls and sticks.
The Susan-ri tomb provides clear evidence of cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan during the Three Kingdoms Period (early 4th century to mid-7th century). The Takamatsu tomb, constructed in the 7th century in Nara prefecture, has a wall painting that includes a pleated skirt, very similar in both color and shape to one painted in the Susan-ri tomb. The Susan-ri tomb is in relatively decent condition, but the Takamatsu tomb has suffered serious damage due to mold.
Of course, Susan-ri murals are also at risk of deterioration. The northern wall of the main vault, which has the painting of the tomb’s owner, has been damaged, and the lime on the wall on the eastern side had also come off. North Koreans have fixed some of the parts with lime and cement.

On April 28, driving 80 kilometers southeast of Pyongyang led to large plain around a low hill topped with pine trees. In the middle of this plain, as if having arisen to push aside the rice paddies, sits Anak Tomb No. 3, built in the mid-4th century in Anak County, South Hwanghae province.
Anak is one of the most famous of Goguryeo’s ancient tombs. It has four vaults: In the middle is the main vault, where the body was laid, which could be reached through several corridors. The walls and ceilings were full of paintings depicting the lives of Goguryeo people as they used wells, kitchens, stables, and butcher shops.
The western vault has the “Painting of Political Affairs,” which depicts officials reporting to the owner of the tomb. No one knows for certain who the owner was, but one clue is the paintings depicting janghadok, high-ranking royal servants, on both sides of the entrance of the western vault. On the upper side of a Janghadok mural is an inscription reading, “Dongsu who died in 357.” Although South Korean scholars believe that the tomb belonged to a high-ranking official named Dongsu, their North Korean counterparts do not believe that Dongsu would have had such a large tomb, and say it belonged to King Gogukwon, who died in 371. The tomb is quite large, and a painting of a procession on the eastern wall has the king’s flag.

In Honam-ri, on April 29, North Korean laborers dug a tunnel 1.5 meters deep into the tomb at Sasin, finally reaching the entrance ― a large flagstone measuring 1.5 by 0.7 meters. After raising the stone, the historians, Northern and Southern, stooped down to enter the tomb.
“I wonder if grave robbers came in and stole relics this way,” said Li Kwang-hi, a professor at Kim Il-sung University. He smiled bitterly. There were no relics; all that was left were the wall paintings. Walking down the aisle toward the vault where a body was laid, the painting came into sight: snakes wrapped around a turtle. It was Hyeonmu, a mythical creature said to protect the northern border.
Though the Hyeonmu in Sasin tomb, however, seemed less dynamic than the other paintings of the creature that appeared in the Kangso Great Tomb, considered the finest example of Goguryeo tomb paintings.
The blue dragon on the east wall, the white tiger on the west wall and the paintings of jujak, a mythical bird, were all relatively well preserved; the Goguryeo people believed they would act as symbols to protect the dead. The vault’s walls were built with long thick marble slabs, with limes poured in between. Sasin is the only Goguryeo tomb to have been built out of marble.
“There are few marble production sites around Pyongyang,” said Bak Jun-ho, a historian from Kim Il-sung University. “It has to be shipped from far away. The owner of the tomb must have been powerful.”


After two weeks of investigations, Han Gyeong-sun, a professor at Konkuk University, could only shake her head in astonishment. “Goguryeo’s wall paintings used very creative techniques that are unseen in other countries,” she said. Murals are often classified into two different types: Frescos (drawings on wet plaster walls) and seccos (drawings on dry plaster walls). Goguryeo murals, however, a mix of the two.
Goguryeo wall paintings were drawn on plaster walls (as in both the Jinpha-ri and Tokhung-ri tombs) or on stones (as in the Kangso Great Tomb and the Anak Tomb No. 3). After examining the murals, Ms. Han said, “It seems that they drew after applying lime water to a plaster or stone wall. They might have mixed gelatin with pigments before applying them to the wall. But gelatin easily deteriorates over time and would not say stuck on the wall. Unlike Western fresco paintings that are part of the wall, Goguryeo wall paintings are a little inflated. But they have survived 15 centuries.”
An Byeong-chan, a professor and pigment specialist at Gyeongju University, is interested in finding out what pigments the Goguryeo people used. According to Mr. An, high-quality pigments were more expensive than gold in Goguryeo, and only the richest of citizens could afford colorful murals.
After using x-rays to examine the wall paintings, it was found that pigments used for Goguryeo’s wall paintings consisted mostly of such minerals as orpiment, carbonic acid copper, iron oxide and red iron ore.
“It is amazing that that the splendid colors of the Goguryeo murals survived in an environment with 95-percent humidity,” Mr. An said.

On May 1, the Northern and Southern scholars met in front of the Kangso Midsize Tomb to discuss opening the tombs to visitors. Sealing the tombs would help keep them preserved, but would preclude further study. North Korea opened the six most famous tombs to professionals, but other tombs have been sealed.
“Before sealing them, there need to be some preservation measures,” said Choi Gwang-shik, a senior official at the National Cultural Properties Research Institute. “We need to build some replicas for exhibition to satisfy the curiosity of visitors.”
The North Koreans lack some of the equipment necessary to preserve the tombs. They do not have digital equipment to measure temperature and humidity, although both can be checked regularly. Attempting to restore some of the damaged tombs, the Northerners placed more soil over the tombs, which Unesco officials pointed out could apply more pressure on the structures.
“Combining North Korea’s experience and South Korea’s technology, we will be able to find appropriate solutions,” said Lee Tae-ho.
“Since it is a North-South Korean joint project, we hope that we can set up mid- to long-term plans together,” said professor Li Kwang-hi. The final report will be released in August.

by Park Jeong-ho

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