Eung Tae's Tomb: A Joseon Ancestor and the Letters of Those That Loved Him

Article excerpt


After Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the fourth century, it remained the state religion for around 1000 years, during which time Buddhist thought was deeply rooted in the lives of the Korean people. By the latter half of the fourteenth century, however, there was much corruption in official Buddhist circles, causing widespread discontent among the Korean population. This resulted in the overthrow of the Buddhist Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) by Confucianist intellectuals who went on to found the new Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) (Lee Bong Chun 2003).

Almost as soon as they attained power, the Joseon Confucianists attempted a kind of cultural revolution, erasing all traces of Buddhist influence then prevailing in Korean society. Burial practice, specifically the structure of the tomb, also became a subject of contention. Since they had repeatedly criticised the Buddhists' cremation rite as blasphemous and disrespectful to ancestors (and in any case, expensive to perform), a new type of inhumation tomb was introduced by the ruling elite of the Joseon Dynasty.

Known to us as the lime-soil-mixture-barrier type (LSMB), the tomb consisted of a wooden coffin encapsulated by the lime-soil mix, which hardens like stone when it meets with water for the first time. The coffin and its contents are thus contained within a concrete jacket, encouraging a high degree of preservation. Since LSMB tomb construction was thought to be much cheaper and easier than the Buddhist burial rites, it quickly became 'the ideal burial system', and in consequence this type of tomb is one of the most frequently identified in Korean archaeology (Kim 2007).


The human remains and artefacts found in LSMB tombs have become invaluable subjects for archaeological and related studies on medieval Korean people and society (Shin et al. 2003; Kim et al. 2006; Lee et al. 2007; Seo et al. 2007). This paper describes a case study that has emerged as a leader in successful collaborative studies on LSMB tombs. Work commenced over 10 years ago, and its result has been the reconstruction of the life of a dead man and his family in extraordinary detail. As well as setting the agenda for academic studies of the period, the tomb of Eung Tae has become one of the most famous in Korea.

Description of the investigation

The burial belonged to a group of small earth mounds which stood near the top of the slope on the south bank of the Nakdong giver which flows through Andong City (Figure 1). Affected by an urban renewal project in April 1998, the tombs were to be relocated in accordance with the wishes of a descendent community in the city. Our investigation was to take account of this. After excavation of the mound, the 15cm-thick LSMB layer was removed, exposing a wooden coffin (Figure 2). The period of the burial was quickly ascertained from an inscription written on the coffin lid, which identified the inmate as a member of the medieval Kosung Yi Clan. This outer coffin contained an inner coffin, in which lay the preserved corpse of the dead person (Figures 3 and 4a).



Both coffins were made of pine wood (Pinus densiflora), and the base of the inner coffin was separated from the base of the outer coffin by a layer of charcoal (Figure 4c). The inner coffin was painted black, its corners were sealed with paper, and a Chinese character on the short end stated 'this way up' (marked with an arrow: Figure 4b). When we opened the coffin, we saw bundles of cloth secured with hemp ropes. These were all lifted on site, exposing the face and the body beneath (Figure 5). The dead person was quickly confirmed as a male from the beard on his chin. His height was 1.80m, and his body was in a fragile condition although partially mummified (Figure 5c).

In accordance with the wishes of the descendants, the mummified body was reburied on the same date as its discovery; thus no anatomical or pathological data could be obtained, and what follows is based on the grave goods alone. …