SPECIAL FEATURE 3
Baekje Emerges from a Royal Tomb
A lack of research materials on the Baekje Kingdom had left its culture largely unknown before the discovery of a king’s tomb began to reveal its essence. Found by accident in 1971 in the process of building a drainage system in a Baekje royal graveyard in Songsan-ri, in its old capital Gongju, the tomb of King Muryeong is the only royal sepulcher from the three Kingdoms period (57 B.c.-A.D. 668) with identifi ed occupants.
Located in the East Asian Monsoon region, the Korean peninsula entered into yet another rainy season in the summer of 1971. A rainy spell often means disaster at a cultural heritage site, but that year in Gongju, it was a blessing in disguise.
Along with Silla and Goguryeo, the Baekje Kingdom, which lasted for almost 700 years from its foundation in 18 B.C., was one of the Three Kingdoms which prospered in ancient Korea. In Gongju, the second capital of Baekje, located in current South Chungcheong Province, there is a cluster of royal tombs in Songsan-ri, at the southern foot of a low hill, with the Geum River flowing through the city from the north. At this historic site, where the soft contours of ancient burial mounds create a cozy atmosphere, the discovery of the tomb of Baekje’s 25th monarch, King Muryeong (r. 501–523), and his wife came about serendipitously through rainfall.
Drainage System Maintenance for Rainy Season
The 16th-century book “Revised and Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea" (Sinjeung dongguk yeoji seungnam) has an entry on Gongju describing the royal tombs in Songsan-ri: “There is a county school 3 li to the west of the town, with a cluster of old tombs to its west. They are said to be royal tombs from Baekje but the exact occupants are unknown.” The tombs had already been noted in the Joseon era as belonging to Baekje kings. Later, in the early half of the 20th century, excavations revealed that the site was a royal cemetery created during 475–538 when Ungjin (present-day Gongju) was the kingdom’s capital, although the owner of each grave was not clarified. In the early 1970s, with six mounds of presumed royal tombs exposed, the area was registered as a state-designated historic site.
Every summer, the ancient tombs suffered damage from downpours because rainwater flowing down from the back hill would seep into the underground burial chambers. To protect the two mounds (No. 5 and No. 6) lying next to each other in an east-west direction, the Office of Cultural Properties (the current Cultural Heritage Administration) under the Ministry of Culture and Information decided to dig a drainage channel running parallel with them, about three meters away toward the back hill. Work began on June 29, when the monsoonal front started to move northward toward Korea’s southern coast, with the aim of finishing it before the rain began.
A week later, at around 2 p.m. on July 5, one of the workers digging the channel hit a river rock with his spade. “A river rock down in the ground? I knew instantly something was strange, because river rocks were used for tombs. Digging deeper, I came to a solid brick structure, and the dirt that turned up contained lime. Eventually, my pickax clanged on something hard — traditional bricks,” said Kim Yeongil, then site manager from the contractor Samnam Construction. This moment heralded the unexpected discovery of a magnificent royal tomb and a landmark event in the history of Korean archaeology. The pickax had touched on the ceiling for the southern part of the passageway to the main chamber, built entirely of traditional bricks.
At this point, no one knew who was interred in the tomb although the brickwork and layout, which closely resembled Tomb No. 6 directly in front of it, led those on site to believe it was an untouched royal burial chamber.
A Nightlong Downpour
What were they supposed to do with the newly discovered brick tomb? The site manager immediately reported the discovery to Kim Yeong-bae, director of the Gongju branch of the National Museum of Korea (the current Gongju National Museum). The museum was obliged to report it to the Office of Cultural Properties to obtain permission for excavation, but under the excitement of finding a new royal tomb from Baekje, the proper procedures were ignored. On the same day, museum officials rushed to start digging up the site with some local archaeologists, and became convinced that it was indeed a Baekje royal tomb built with traditional bricks.
the discovery of King Muryeong’s tomb brought Baekje’s history out of obscurity. Baekje had remained a dark corner in ancient Korean history due to a shortage of relevant literature, but the relics from the tomb provided solid evidence that shed light on the ancient kingdom’s history from diverse perspectives.
The Office of Cultural Properties was informed of the discovery the next day, July 6, by the Gongju municipal government. The office sent staff to the site to investigate the situation, ordered an immediate halt to any unauthorized digging, and decided to organize a formal excavation team. On July 7, the team arrived. It was led by Kim Won-ryong, the then director of the National Museum of Korea, and included researchers from the Cultural Properties Research Institute affiliated to the Office of Cultural Properties, such as Cho Yu-jeon and Ji Gon-gil (see box). The excavation began at 4 p.m. on the same day.
After just two hours, however, a sudden torrent of rain came down. The site was flooded and rainwater threatened to leak into the royal burial chamber. The team was compelled to abandon the site, leaving only the construction crew, who struggled through the pitchblack night to dig a drainage ditch. In the meantime, the excavation team gathered at a motel in downtown Gongju to discuss how to proceed with the excavation, and decided to resume work the next day.
The Excavation Site Buzzes with Excitement
The sky cleared the next day and the sun shone brightly. Having resumed the excavation at 5 a.m. on July 8, the team successfully uncovered the entrance of the passageway leading to the main chamber. Clearly, it was another Baekje royal tomb. At 4 p.m., before the tomb was finally opened, a simple memorial rite was held for its occupants, with three dried pollacks and rice wine placed on a small table. At last, the team started to remove the bricks blocking the entrance one by one. When the dark passageway was unsealed for the first time in 1,500 years, a cool draught blew from the inside like a whiff of white vapor or cool air coming from a car’s air conditioner in midsummer.
Ji Gon-gil, former director of the National Museum of Korea, refers to the 1970s when he worked in Gyeongju, the old capital of Silla, as the pinnacle of his archaeological career. Fondly, he keeps looking back to the time when he unearthed the two royal tombs — the Tomb of the Heavenly Horse (Cheonmachong) and the Great Tomb of Hwangnam (Hwangnam Daechong) — from 1973 to 1976. While it was an honor for him to work on those projects, Ji says, the excavation of King Muryeong’s tomb remains a source of irrevocable shame.
Currently serving as chairman of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, Ji graduated from Seoul National University with a major in archaeology and anthropology, before entering officialdom in November 1968 as a researcher at the Office of Cultural Properties (predecessor of the Cultural Heritage Administration). On July 7, 1971, he was abruptly ordered to go to Gongju with a few of his colleagues. Before he got there, he had no idea that an ancient tomb, presumably of Baekje royalty, had been discovered, and that he would be responsible for investigating it. “None of us heading for Gongju knew anything about it,” he recalls. “Upon our arrival, we were stunned at the sight of an ancient brick tomb with its front slightly exposed.”
Although he was just a young researcher who was not in a position to make decisions, he has been tormented by the fact that he took a leading role in a project recorded in archaeological history as a ludicrously slapdash excavation. “The tomb of King Muryeong was excavated in a chaotic and careless manner, with the entire process from the discovery to the actual excavation exposed in real time to the media and the local community. In the uproar and excitement, our team found it hard to keep cool and rational,” he recalls.
In fact, there’s another thing that Ji regrets about the excavation. At the time, one of his duties was to take photos, the primary evidence for the original condition of the site, with all the relics in their right positions. However, he produced few good photographic materials, and most of the scanty number of photos available were taken by reporters on the site. What happened?
“Inside the tomb, I worked hard photographing the chamber. It was only after I developed my films back at the Seoul office that I realized something was wrong with the photos. I had taken a brand new camera to the site, so I was clumsy with handling it. Some of the shots were exposed on one-half of the frame, and only a few cuts could be saved,” he explains.
They turned out to be wooden coffins that had collapsed under the weight of time. Golden relics peeked through the gaps. The two archaeologists could hardly believe their eyes, their intuition telling them that it had never been touched by human hands since the burial. “Discovering an undamaged tomb from Baekje! A royal tomb at that!” They could not contain their excitement.
Thus, the tomb of King Muryeong was unearthed as soon as its occupant was identified, and the chamber was completely emptied by 8 a.m. the next day, July 9. Nobody had documented what had been found where, and in what condition.
With neither a plan nor proper protocol, King Muryeong’s tomb was excavated in such haste that it could have been the work of grave robbers. Ever since, the project has been repeatedly criticized and bemoaned by the Korean archaeological community. Nevertheless, the unfortunate manner of the excavation has not overshadowed its results. Of the 114 kings of the Three Kingdoms and the subsequent Unified Silla periods — 31 from Baekje, 27 from Goguryeo and 56 from Silla, which unified the three kingdoms — only King Muryeong has had his tomb identified by posterity.
Visitors to the Gongju National Museum look around the exhibits, including the wooden coffi ns for the royal couple and the guardian animal, restored almost to their original state.