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Earliest Hangeul metal movable type blocks excavated in Seoul

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Movable metal printing blocks featuring Hangeul, which were found during an archaeological excavation carried out in Insa-dong, central Seoul, from March to June, are displayed during a press conference held nearby at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap
Movable metal printing blocks featuring Hangeul, which were found during an archaeological excavation carried out in Insa-dong, central Seoul, from March to June, are displayed during a press conference held nearby at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap

By Park Ji-won

Movable metal type (printing) blocks, which could be the earliest known depicting Hangeul, the Korean alphabet created in 1443 under the guidance of King Sejong the Great, were found in a pot during a recent archaeological excavation in Seoul, the Cultural Heritage Association (CHA) said Tuesday.

They were part of a trove of 1,600 metal type blocks, believed to have been produced between the 15th and 16th centuries during the early Joseon Kingdom, uncovered with other artifacts from the period.

Of the 1,600 blocks, 1,000 carried Chinese characters estimated to have been made around 1434, which would be the oldest of their kind; while 600 were of Hangeul characters.

If the blocks, which are currently being examined by experts, are confirmed to date back that far, those depicting Hangeul would be the earliest known to display the Korean alphabet, while those showing Chinese would be the world's first examples of that written language engraved on movable metal type blocks known to exist.

The CHA said the Hangeul metal blocks recovered by the Sudo Research Institute of Cultural Heritage ― during an archaeological excavation at a redevelopment site in Insa-dong between March and June ― could be the earliest of their kind known to follow the "Donggukjeongun" style orthography, which was only used in the 15th century when Hangeul, known then as Hunminjeongeum, was invented. Also, it is the first time for a complete set of Hangeul type in various sizes to be recovered.

Currently, the oldest known existing Hangeul metal print blocks are a collection of around 30 from around 1455, which are currently on display at the National Museum of Korea. But these weren't excavated by archaeologists, they were passed down over the ages through families and then into government hands.

Movable metal type blocks featuring Hangeul characters, which were found during an excavation in Insa-dong from March to June. Yonhap
Movable metal type blocks featuring Hangeul characters, which were found during an excavation in Insa-dong from March to June. Yonhap

"The Hangeul type blocks seem to have been fabricated between 1455 and 1461 during the reign of King Sejo of the Joseon Kingdom as they show the Donggukjeongun style orthography," Paek Doo-Hyeon, a professor at Kyungpook National University, said during a press conference.

Regarding the Chinese character blocks, Lee Seung-chul, a curator at the Jikji Pavilion, said, "We have confirmed that four to five blocks appear to be similar to ones made in 1434 … This is very important in investigating the printing technology of the Joseon era."

Oh Kyung-taek, head of the Sudo Research Institute of Culture, suggested that the burial of the relics was done "intentionally" in a hurried manner.

"The metal type blocks seems to be made out of bronze. They were buried under an ordinary house in area where many yangban ― the highest social class of the period ― lived. It appears that many middle-class people and government officials lived there. It seems that a person buried them during an emergency and failed to recover them … We have recovered many relics buried in a similar manner during wars in the 16th century such as the 1592-98 Japanese invasions of Korea and the 1636-37 Qing invasion."

In addition to the blocks, the administration also unveiled remnants that belonged to astronomical and water clocks made during Sejong's reign, eight parts of "Seungja" firearms made between the reigns of Kings Jungjong and Seonjo, and pieces of a bronze bell.


Park Ji-won jwpark@koreatimes.co.kr


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