Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Mural Flap Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Daniel Kane

[image] Detail from a fifth-century A.D. mural stolen from Changch'on tomb no. 1 in China. (Daniel Kane) [LARGER IMAGE]

China and South Korea are pointing fingers at each other following the looting of 1,500-year-old tomb murals from the sleepy Chinese town of Jian on the North Korean border. For several centuries the town was the capital of Koguryo, a northeast Asian kingdom that flourished from the fourth to seventh centuries A.D., and which Koreans consider a direct antecedent to the modern Korean nation. The murals were two of the most well known and well preserved examples of Koguryo art, featuring colorful depictions of daily life as well as some of the earliest representations of the Buddha in East Asia. The paintings were not made directly on the rock face but on a plaster overlay, making their removal a relatively easy process.

The thieves' work was thorough. The walls of one tomb (Changch'on tomb no. 1, just northeast of Jian) were left "as white as paper" according to one Korean newspaper account. This was not the first such incident in the region. The series of Koguryo tombs at Changch'on were looted in 1996.

Public reaction in Korea was harsh, with the media lamenting China's apparent neglect of what Koreans consider their national heritage. Chinese authorities, who reported that the perpetrators had been apprehended, claim the thieves were ethnic Koreans living in China; they have hardly minced words concerning their suspicion that South Koreans, eager to preserve and possess Koguryo relics, are behind the pilfering. The paintings have not been found.

Ironically, the looting comes only a year before the tombs and their murals were to be registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites, along with similar Koguryo remains in North Korea, and it was hoped that the added recognition might heighten awareness of preservation and protection issues concerning the fifth-century tombs. For the moment, it seems some of the world's few surviving witnesses to the vanished kingdom of Koguryo have themselves disappeared.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America