16th-century mummy captivates a nation

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)

In April of 1998, a construction was about to begin on a large apartment complex in Andong City, South Korea. An earlier survey had established that the hillside contained 16 tombs. Archaeologists determined that the tombs belonged to the ancestors of the Goseong Yi, a clan indigenous to the region that rose to power at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty (A.D 918-1392) and remained influential throughout the Joseon Dynasty (A.D 1392-1910). Several were left unclaimed. Not long after, descendants of another family started looking for their ancestors burial ground and dug into an unclaimed tomb, and found a silk sheet covering the coffin that contained the letters : Cheolseong Yi. The descendants were notified immediately but they were quite surprised and puzzled. Their descendants apparently, like many other Korean clans kept a very detailed lineage book recording locations of their ancestors’ tombs. The descendants take really good care of these burials, holding traditional rituals, including an annual ceremony called “Jesa”, in which the family visits the grave, prepares food, bows to their ancestor, and then feasts. But somehow, this tomb was not recorded in their book, it wasn’t cared for like the other tombs, and no one knew who was buried there.

Together with archaeologists, the descendants decided to relocate all of the family’s tomb about 19 miles east. As they were examining a tomb that records show belonged to Myeong-jeong Yi (A.D. 1504-1565) and his wife Ms.Mun, they discovered something quite surprising. Although only several bones of her husband was left, Ms.Mun was a very well-preserved mummy. In only one day archaeologists exposed the mummy and extracted over 75 artifacts, within these artifacts there were 18 letters in a small silk pouch, dozens of clothing including hats, socks, and shoes used to accompany the dead. A common burial practice for that time.
The descendants still had no idea of who was buried there until they uncovered letters addressed to “Eung-Tae”. The lineage book revealed someone with that name and was in fact Ms.Mun’s grandson. This was a very exciting piece towards the missing link and helped recover a part of their heritage!

Letter found in tomb; addressed to Won's father (Courtesy of Andong National University

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)

A paper parcel was found next to Eung-Tae’s head. At first archaeologists couldn’t make out what it was, but when they unwrapped it, they revealed a pair of men’s shoes. Faded writings on the worn-out wrapping paper included phrases like “with my hair I weave this” and “before you were even able to wear it” Scholars from Korea’s National Institue of Scientific Investigators analyzed the handwriting and concluded that the shoes, were in fact, made from her hair. “There are references in Korean literature to the tradition of making the shoes with human hair as a symbol of love or hope for recovery¬† from an illness, but we have never actually found any examples,” says Se-Kwon Yim, former director of the Andong National University Museum.

The two tombs in which the mummies were found were lime-soil-mixture-barrier tombs, a kind only found in Korea. They consist of wooden coffins, tightly closed by a lime-and-soil mixture that hardens like a concrete shell on contact with moisture in the earth. Koreans learned about this tomb structure around the mid-16th century from a book on family rites written by Chinese Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (A.D. 1130-1200) This practice was meant to show respect for Confucianism, which was popular during the Joseon dynasty; it was not intended to mummify the dead as it may seem.

According to tests of the mixture from the couple’s tomb conducted by Gyo-cheol jeong, a professor at the Department of Earth and environmental Science of Andong National University, the strength of the outer shell surrounding the coffin of Eung-Tae’s grandmother was seven to ten times higher than that of her husband’s. It was also approximately 40 percent more durable, explaining why only the wife was found as a mummy and the husband as scatters of bones. Apparently, the coffin’s outer shell was so hard that the workers has to use large construction drills to open it. Talk about a tough break-in!

Seventy-nine-year-old Do-Hyeong still lives in the Goseong-Yi ancestral home. He is from the 31st generation of the clan. Eung-Tae was from the 17th. One of the greatest regrets is that no one was able to find out who Eung-Tae’s wife was. “It’s very odd because all identities of the wives were recorded in our lineage book,” Do-Hyeong says. A tall, thick ginkgo tree, known from the family records to be over 480 years old, still stands in the house yard. Perhaps Eung-Tae and his wife strolled by this very tree not knowing what inspiration they have to people more than 400 years after they lived.

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