In the annals of archaeological history, certain discoveries stand out as remarkable milestones. Among them, the revelation of the royal tombs dating back to the Three Kingdoms period in Korea remains a pivotal moment. However, one particular tomb, that of King Muryeong, occupies a unique place in this narrative. Despite its historical significance and treasure trove of artifacts, the excavation of King Muryeong tomb has earned notoriety as one of the costliest blunders in the field. To understand what transpired 40 years ago at Songshan Lee Tunes in Chungcheongnam-do Province, where all the kings from the engendering pact period were laid to rest, we delve into the fascinating story of this archaeological discovery.
The Serendipitous Discovery
King Muryeong tomb, previously known only through historical records, emerged from obscurity by sheer chance four decades ago. During drainage work at Sun Suddenly No. 6, a worker's shovel struck something hard beneath the earth. As bricks were carefully revealed, the excavation process was temporarily halted, and a dedicated research team was dispatched to the site.
As the team expanded their excavation area, more brick walls came into view, hinting at the grandeur that lay beneath. However, nature intervened with heavy rain, sparking rumors that the disturbance of the king's tomb had caused this deluge. Once the rain ceased, the team resumed their work, revealing a brick tomb approximately eight meters below the surface. This was the moment when the tomb of a king who had lived 1,500 years ago was unveiled, forever altering the course of archaeological history.
A Regrettable Mishap
The excavation of King Muryeong's tomb promised an extraordinary journey into ancient history. Inside, a memorial stone bore the carved word "Sama," King Muryeong's childhood name, confirming the tomb's royal occupant. However, the promising discovery swiftly turned into a devastating tragedy.
In 1971, when the tomb was found, the world took notice. Newspapers ran exclusive articles, and crowds flocked to the site. In the rush to uncover its secrets, the head of the excavation team decided to work through the night, leading to a frantic, seventeen-hour excavation. In the process, priceless artifacts were trampled, and the tomb's historical traces were forever lost.
The interior of the tomb was in disarray. The coffin had collapsed, blocking access, and ceramics were strewn haphazardly. It appeared as though the tomb had endured a significant impact, potentially from the collapsing coffin or an ancient earthquake. The meticulous arrangement of artifacts was lost to time.
A Unique Tomb with a Mysterious Origin
What set King Muryeong's tomb apart was not just its historical value but its unique architectural style. The tomb's construction was unlike anything seen on the Korean Peninsula at the time. Bricks, laid carefully layer by layer, created an arch inside the tomb, adorned with lotus flower motifs.
Remarkably, the bricks used were similar to those found in Liang, China, and even bore patterns reminiscent of the Liang tombs. This discovery hinted at a fascinating possibility: King Muryeong's tomb was influenced by Liang China's tomb-building methods. Trade between Korea and China during King Muryeong's reign was at its zenith, suggesting the tomb's embrace of advanced cultures.
Cultural Exchange and International Influence
Inside the tomb, artifacts revealed the extent of King Muryeong's engagement with Chinese culture. Ceramics from both Korea and Liang China were nearly identical, and the tomb contained an oil lamp made of white porcelain and a Liang Chinese coin. Furthermore, it was a treasure trove of East Asian metal crafts, showcasing the rich exchange of cultures that characterized this era.
King Muryeong's tomb reflects a broader picture of openness to East Asian culture, laying the foundation for a flourishing Baekje (Paekche) dynasty. This internationality embodied the power of Paekche—a testament to King Muryeong's vision for a culturally diverse and interconnected world.
The excavation of King Muryeong's tomb remains a bittersweet chapter in the annals of Korean archaeology. While it unveiled a treasure trove of historical artifacts and offered a glimpse into the international influences of the time, it also serves as a poignant reminder of the irreplaceable loss that can occur in the rush to uncover the past. King Muryeong's tomb, with its unique architectural style and cultural significance, continues to provide valuable insights into the interconnectedness of ancient East Asian cultures and the legacy of King Muryeong's vision for a vibrant and cosmopolitan Baekje (Paekche) dynasty.