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A family of 16th-century mummies captivates a nation


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Archaeologists in Andong City, South Korea, unwrap cloth covering the 16th-century mummy of Eung-tae, a member of Korea's ancient Goseong Yi clan. (Courtesy Andong National University)

The excavation began at eleven in the morning, and took several hours of painstaking work. First archaeologists dug into the tomb, then, after breaking through its hardened-earth shell, they exposed a wooden coffin. They dismantled it, and removed pieces of clothing, until they reached the body. Everyone at the site was stunned. Inside was a male mummy, a very rare find in Korea ten years ago. Although his skull was badly decayed, his skin and beard were still visible. He was tall, even by today's standards, measuring 5 feet 9 inches, and sturdily built. "The dark mustache made me feel that he must have had a charming appearance," says Se-kwon Yim, former director of the Andong National University Museum and one of the first people to see the mummy. On looking closer, archaeologists saw a letter from his wife covering his body; it turned out to be the key to his identity.

The discovery of the eulogy caused a media frenzy and has captivated the public for more than a decade, leading to several novels and, most recently, an opera and feature film. Meanwhile, archaeologists have continued to study the tomb's contents to learn more about the mummy's life.

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To Won's Father
June 1, 1586

You always said, "Dear, let's live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?

How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, "Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?" How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?

I just cannot live without you. I just want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where would I put my heart in now and how can I live with the child missing you?

Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. Because I want to listen to your saying in detail in my dreams I write this letter and put it in. Look closely and talk to me.

When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.

You are just in another place, and not in such a deep grief as I am. There is no limit and end [to my sorrows] that I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say and I stop here.

(Courtesy Andong National University)

Hyung-eun Kim is a reporter at JoongAng Daily, an English-language newspaper in Korea.

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