Entire contents of King Muryeong's tomb on display for first time
GONGJU, South Chungcheong – On July 5, 1971, a worker was digging at the site of the royal tombs in Songsan-ri in Gongju to install a water drainage system near tombs No. 5 and 6. He felt the end of his shovel hit something hard. Feeling “instant goosebumps that it’s something big, I instantly reported it to my superior,” the worker was quoted in various media reports in 1971 covering the historic moment of the discovery of King Muryeong’s untouched 1,442-year-old tomb.
Inside the ancient chamber-like tomb made of bricks, two wooden coffins of King Muryeong and his queen, along with their valuable belongings were discovered. The front pages of almost all newspapers featured the surprising discovery and reports followed for days, as the Cultural Heritage Administration revealed what had been found inside the tomb.
It’s been 50 years since the tomb of King Muryeong was discovered, which became a major archaeological discovery in Korea that provided valuable information to understand Korea’s Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. to A.D. 660).
To mark the 50th anniversary of the historic moment, the Gongju National Museum has organized a special exhibition, revealing for the first time the entire collection of artifacts unearthed from the tomb.
The unearthed artifacts, many of which made it on the National Treasure list, have been revealed to the public at different museums for special exhibitions. But according to the museum, this special anniversary exhibit is the first time that visitors will be able to witness all the relics discovered inside the tomb under one roof. The exhibition runs until March next year.
“To display all the artifacts, we had to utilize both the special and permanent exhibition halls of the museum,” said Han Soo, director of the museum. “The Gongju National Museum itself was established two years after the tomb's discovery in 1973 to preserve, research and exhibit the relics of King Muryeong and his queen. Since its establishment, the museum has been devoted to classifying, documenting, analyzing and researching the artifacts, comparing them with similar artifacts from overseas and making various primary sources available to outside researchers.”
Why is such an intact tomb like King Muryeong’s so rare?
Archaeologists say the structures of Korea’s ancient tombs were easy to rob. Therefore, it is difficult to identify who the tombs' were built for as they are devoid of any relics. The Songsan-ri site houses seven ancient tombs. Before the discovery of King Muryeong’s tomb, all six had already been robbed. That’s why most of the ancient tombs of Korea are classified by numbers, except King Muryeong's. Among the tombs of the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. to A.D. 668), King Muryeong’s tomb is the only one whose owner and the year of construction are verified.
It is said that a Japanese man named Garube Zion, a notorious tomb robber who was teaching in a high school in Gongju during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45), had illegally excavated about 970 heritage sites of Baekje including many of the ancient tombs in Songsan-ri. He failed to recognize the tumulus next to Tomb No. 6 as a tomb, mistaking it for an artificially created hill to the north of Tomb No. 6. Thanks to his misunderstanding, King Muryeong’s tomb remained untouched for more than 1,400 years.
“Imagine how much research can be done with the discovery of an untouched tomb with more than 5,000 relics,” said Choi Jang-yeal, chief curator at the museum. "Even a wisdom tooth that belongs to the queen was discovered. It's also on display."
Choi says one of the crucial discoveries is the Epitaph Plaque for the king, which is one of the first artifacts discovered as soon as the main entrance of the tomb was opened for the first time in 1971.
On the stone tablet, there’s an inscription recording that the king passed away on May 7 in the year 523. The records in “Samguksagi,” or “The Chronicles of the Three States” says that, "offering tangible evidence that proves what’s recorded on Samguksagi is all true,” said Choi. The Epitaph Plaque became a National Treasure.
King Muryeong ruled Baekje from 501 to 523. During his reign, Ungjin, which is today’s Gongju, was Baekje’s capital.
Jewelry designers will be amused by the next section in the exhibit, which displays Baekje’s artistically sophisticated gold decorative ornaments and jewelry the period is known for.
Heart-shaped gold earrings for the king, which are a National Treasure, are displayed here. This pair of pure gold earrings weigh more than 100 grams (0.03 ounces), known to be the heaviest earrings discovered in Korea. Other National Treasures like the king’s gold hairpins, the king and queen’s crown ornaments, earrings as well as gold and silver necklaces and bracelets are on display. As many of their items are displayed side by side, visitors can also clearly see the distinct differences between the two.
“Most of the decorative relics and jewelry for the king are nearly 99 percent pure gold while those for the queen are lesser,” said Lim Ji-yeon, curator of the exhibit. The nails used for the wooden coffins are also different. The flower decorations on the nails for the king’s coffin used gold, silver and iron while the queen’s are made with just iron and silver.
“Apparently, everything that belongs to the king has larger gold content. They are of course larger in size and it looks like more attention and care was given to the things that belonged to the king,” Lim added.
She also pointed out many of the artifacts excavated were similar to those that were found in China and Japan, illustrating the close diplomatic relationship Baekje had with its neighboring countries.
A bronze iron was also excavated next to the queen, similar to the bronze irons excavated from Japan’s ancient tombs in Osaka.
Han said he believes that King Seong, who took over Baekje after his father’s death, decided to commemorate his father King Muryeong by burying him with luxury items from China and Japan to illustrate how skillful his father was in forming diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.
The special exhibit not only displays hundreds of relics, but also visually illustrates the outcomes of 50 years of research, which is still ongoing.
“We also organized an exhibit that raises numerous questions especially toward the end so that the public can sympathize with the fact that there’s still so much more to study and find out using the unearthed relics and the tomb itself,” said Han.
“Like the question of how the queen’s coffin got into the tomb. There are different assertions made by researchers on this issue. One is that the people reassembled the coffin after taking it inside the tomb while others say they somehow managed to bring it inside as a whole piece. More studies should take place to find out the truth.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]