Posted : 2011-10-28 18:05
Updated : 2011-10-28 18:05

Many layers of cultural heritage

By Kim Ji-myung

Sometimes it’s surprising what you can see with fresh eyes. Upon arriving at Incheon International Airport after a trip abroad, I’ve noticed that Seoul can look different, new and even exotic.

Like many Koreans, I am proud of Seoul, although I rarely express this. Thanks to the country’s robust economic growth, many people, including former mayors, have worked hard to ``modernize” the city and enhance livability. Over the past decade, Seoul’s infrastructure, public areas and facilities have improved markedly through better sidewalks, public transportation, design and by expanding the quality and quantity of city parks.

As a country's per capita GDP reaches $10,000, $20,000 and higher, noticeable changes usually emerge. These changes are typically seen in physical ways ― infrastructure and facilities ― as well as in the environment and even in terms of public etiquette ― e.g. standing in a queue.

By any measure, today’s Seoul is a world-class metropolis, and I am pleased to see a growing number of foreigners who have decided to make Korea’s capital their home by purchasing homes here.

That all said the improvements we all enjoy are the result of controversial changes. For example, large and important projects like the recent renovation of Gwanghwamun Square at the very heart of the city was met with sharply divided opinions.

What’s more, some citizens are enraged at the speed with which the city’s heritage is being destroyed in the name of convenience. Among Seoul’s many redeveloped areas, one of the most popular and cherished was Pimatgol, a long stretch of alleys on both sides of Jongno that were lined with modest restaurants and pubs.

When most of the historic thoroughfare was bulldozed last year, a friend of mine, a French literature professor, roared, ``Who in hell empowered the mayor to remove the old Pimatgol alleyway? They never asked for the citizens’ opinions.

“Now there is no place for me to take my foreign friends to let them taste the real old life of ordinary Koreans!” Indeed, for hundreds of years, Pimatgol’s alleys were a sanctuary for common people who sought to avoid the nobles that plied Jongno Street on horseback.

However, the destruction of Pimatgol was but the latest example of a city that’s been built up and torn down over many centuries. In this modern age, what’s exciting and new is that historical surveys are happening alongside redevelopment. In fact, 2011 marks five years since the city kicked off a study of a dozen sites slated for re-development.

Not surprisingly, most of the sites are concentrated in Seoul’s old quarters ― namely the neighborhoods within the old fortress walls. These areas include the city’s five royal palaces and parts of the city located along Jongno Street.

After the February 2008 arson that destroyed Sungnyemun, better known as Namdaemun (South Gate), the surrounding area was also surveyed. A curious outcome of the study was confirmation that the street’s level in the 19th century around the end of Joseon was more than one meter higher than in its early period in the 14th century. Other street surveys found that downtown areas had risen by some 1.5 meters. Experts are not certain why.

No reasonable explanation has been found regarding road construction in the records of Joseon courts. A simple fact is that Seoul has hosted human settlements for thousands of years. Although many of us think of the city as Korea’s 600-year-old capital from the Joseon age, survey results suggest a much more ancient history.

For example, excavation of four distinct layers of earth revealed the remains of wooden and stone fences, suggesting that horse rein posts or sewage systems existed hundreds of years ago. Also uncovered were bones, seashells, pottery and pieces of roof tile. In fact, a site located in Yongsan-gu district near the National Museum of Korea uncovered a large kiln site for roof tiles. The location was ideal for both making and transporting earthenware, given its location near the river.

A soil sample taken near Gwanghwamun gate was found to predate Joseon by hundreds of years. For example, parts of a stone foundation from the Goryeo period (918-1392) were discovered, as well as traces of substances from as far back as the Paleolithic period. Indeed, experts are concluding that Seoul’s history is much older than most of us realize.

After reviewing these initial results, similar studies sound like a highly promising and interesting area for future research. Who knows? Perhaps the stories revealed by Seoul’s many layers of underground cultural heritage will awaken residents to their city’s remarkable history and its role in our civilization.

While it’s inevitable that a dynamic city like Seoul will change, it is also critical that we acknowledge that much of the city’s heritage must also be preserved. After all, urban development or redevelopment must be done with a deep understanding of a city’s history. By knowing this history, we can see our familiar home with new eyes.

The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). She can be reached at
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