Discovery of the Heungdeoksa Temple Site

Jikji was a collection of crucial excerpts from the analects of Buddha and the Buddhist Patriarchs, and like other books of antiquity, it specifies its publication record, including the publication date and location at the end of the work, noting that “This work was printed in movable metal type at Heungdeoksa Temple outside Cheongju Magistracy in the 7th jeongsa month of the 7th year of Emperor Zhaozong of Northern Yuan China (宣光七年丁巳七月日 淸州牧外興德寺鑄字印施).” This short line confirmed that Jikji, published in 1377 (3rd year of King U of Goryeo), is the world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type.

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Publication record at the end of Jikji

What kind of temple was Heungdeoksa Temple outside Cheongju Magistracy, the home to the world’s first metal-print publication? Despite strenuous efforts, academics have been unable to identify any records of the temple before the excavation of its site. Details about the temple, such as its exact location, scale, and history, had remained an unsolved puzzle for a long time. Then, thirteen years after Jikji was first introduced to the public in 1972, questions about the temple finally and unexpectedly found some answers, during a construction project for a housing site nearby.

In December 1984, the Korea Land Corporation launched a residential site development project in Uncheon-dong, Cheongju and the Cheongju University Museum conducted an excavation survey of the site. Uncheon-dong was believed to have been the site of a temple due to the discovery of Buddhist artifacts including the Bronze Bell (Treasure No. 1167) of the Unified Silla Period in 1970 and the Memorial Stone for a Silla Temple in 1982. However, no official excavation survey had been conducted on the area. Therefore, the excavation work was commenced with great expectations and resulted in the discovery of a temple site with a main hall, a pagoda and inner gate placed from north to south in a layout that is now referred to as the Uncheon-dong Historic Site.

The excavation team from Cheongju University also surveyed the environs of the temple site and found the foundation stone of a building, fragments of ridge-end tiles, and roof tiles from the Goryeo Dynasty, not far to the southwest of Uncheon-dong. This verified the existence of another temple site near the current Cheongju Early Printing Museum in addition to the Uncheon-dong Historic Site. As the name of the temple was not identified during the excavation, it was named the Yeondang-ri Historic Site after the old name for the area, and various kinds of Buddhist craftworks, roof-tile fragments, and celadon porcelain were unearthed through the excavation work in March 1985.

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Excavation work at the Heungdeoksa Temple Site (photo by courtesy of Cheongju University Museum)

In October, when the excavation work was almost complete, a piece of a bronze Buddhist gong was discovered in the east side of the temple. A bronze gong is a Buddhist instrument used at Buddhist rituals and the unearthed gong was partially cracked at the side, with the whole body missing. This fragmented gong was clearly engraved with the following phrase, “Heungdeoksa Temple of Seowon Prefecture,” which turned the discovery into a historic moment that confirmed the identity of the unidentified temple site as the Heungdeoksa Temple Site, where the world’s first metal type print had been used to print Jikji. The Heungdeoksa Temple Site is situated two kilometers northwest of Cheongju Fortress in the downtown area of the city, which is perfectly congruent with the record of Jikji, which described “Heungdeoksa Temple outside Cheongju Magistracy.”

After the discovery of the fragmented Buddhist gong, in May the following year, the Heungdeoksa Temple Site was officially designated as Historic Site No. 315. The subsequent problem, however, was that some of the soil from the site had already been removed before the excavation. The excavation team surveyed the housing development site to which the soil from the site had been moved, and used a metal detector to find a bronze bowl with the inscription of “Heungdeoksa Temple in the 10th year of Emperor Xizong of Jin China,” which proves that it was made in 1150, reaffirming that the site was where Jikji was printed, which had not been specified in any existing literature.

Without this dramatic discovery, could the true historical value of Jikji have been recognized as it is now? Printed 63 years earlier than Gutenberg’s printing technology, Jikji could not have maintained its present-day recognition if details such as the publishing date, site, and exact present-day location of the publishing site had not been confirmed by evidence. Therefore, the excavation of the Heungdeoksa Temple Site in 1985 greatly contributed to solidifying Jikji’s true value. In addition, it also represents a landmark excavation in that it demonstrated the importance of excavation and inscriptions by locating the undocumented Heungdeoksa Temple Site through inscriptions engraved on excavated artifacts.

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