• Kyodo

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Recent research has rekindled a century-old dispute among experts of ancient Japanese architecture over the age of one of the country’s most famous buildings.

Officials at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties have declared that the main hall of Horyuji Temple in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, was built after 668. The famous temple is popularly believed to have been rebuilt between 708 and 714 after being destroyed by a fire.

The growth rings of two pieces of timber used for ceiling boards in the “kondo,” or main hall, of the temple show that they were cut between 668 and 669 and between 667 and 668, respectively, according to the institute.

The temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world, has been designated as a national treasure and a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is said to have been originally built in 607.

Whether the temple, built by Prince Shotoku, remains as originally built or was rebuilt after the fire in 670 has been an issue of academic debate since the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

The institute said that although its researchers were unable to find any timber that dates back to the early seventh century, when the temple is said to have been built, the latest finding may spark fresh controversy as it lends support to the hypothesis that the main hall might date from before the fire.

“We were able to provide (researchers) with high-quality information regarding the age (of the timbers) of each building,” said institute researcher Takumi Mitsutani, who headed the study. “I hope that the debate (over Horyuji’s age) will be reactivated with these findings.”

The institute said construction of the main hall might have been started in the 660s, before the fire, because the ceiling boards are installed immediately before a building’s completion.

The smoldering debate over the building’s age was reignited in 2001, when it was discovered that the central pillar of the temple’s pagoda dated back to 594.

This is too old to consider Horyuji’s Western Precinct (Saiin), a major compound in which most of the temple buildings existing today are arranged, as having been rebuilt.

The mystery surrounding the central pillar has yet to be cleared up.

The Saiin had until then been widely considered a reconstruction, as remnants of what is believed to be the original Horyuji Temple were found in 1939.

For its latest study, the institute examined 107 timbers used in the main hall, pagoda and “chumon,” or inner gate, and was able to confirm the latest years when the timbers used in the buildings were cut.

They confirmed that the timbers used in the main hall had been cut between 668 and 669 and between 667 and 668, those used in the pagoda in 673 and those in the inner gate in 699.

From the findings, the institute concluded that the buildings of the temple were built in the order of the main hall, the pagoda and the inner gate.

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