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When colorful paintings were found on the ceiling and walls of the stone chamber of the Takamatsuzuka ancient mound in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, in March 1972, it caused a national sensation. The paintings, believed to date back about 1,300 years, stimulated intense public interest, creating an “archaeology boom” in Japan.

The paintings received academic attention from scholars because it was thought that they might be closely connected with paintings from the early years of China’s Tang Dynasty or the Koguryo Kingdom of the Korean Peninsula.

After a long period of silence, headlines with the word “Takamatsuzuka” appeared again this week — but this time with an unexpected twist. The articles were about the Cultural Affairs Agency’s decision to disassemble the stone chamber in order to preserve paintings that were being damaged by the spread of mold. A 24-member task force of the agency reached the decision after four rounds of discussions since June 2004.

This must have prompted many people to wonder, was it not possible for the agency to take action earlier? The decision was so sudden that one cannot help but feel that the agency did too little over the years to inform people about the status of the precious ancient heritage.

The mound had been designated as a special historical relic and the wall paintings as a national treasure. The agency’s decision means deviating from the traditional policy of preserving such historical assets where they are. We are worried that the core part of the relics may be destroyed.

The ancient mound is circular with a diameter of about 20 meters and a height of about five meters. The inside of its stone chamber, composed of 15 tuff stone panels, has a dimension of 2.6 meters in length, one meter in width and 1.1 meters in height.

On the walls are the paintings of three ancient symbols of directions — the Blue Dragon of the east, the White Tiger of the west and the Black Turtle-Snake of the north. The image of the Red Phoenix of the south apparently had worn off before the discovery was made. There are also paintings of four men and four women. The ceiling bears a painting of constellations. The paintings are on nine of the 15 tuff stone panels. Bones from an adult male were also found.

The work to disassemble and move the stone chamber is not expected to start until early 2007 because it will take some time to test work procedures. For the test, a real size replica of the stone chamber using tuff stone panels will be used.

For the time being, cool air will be piped into the stone chamber to prevent the spread of mold. However, an expert is reported to have told the task force that even if the temperature is kept at 5 C the spread of the mold cannot be prevented.

The stone chamber will be moved to a newly built facility, where work to preserve or restore the paintings will be carried out. Before the stone chamber is disassembled, steps will be taken to prevent the paintings from coming off. According to an expert, it will take more than 10 years to repair all the paintings on the nine tuff stone panels.

The agency’s decision clearly shows its thinking — to preserve the colorful ancient paintings at the expense of disassembling the stone chamber. This approach is understandable. But worries still remain even if measures are taken to prevent the wall paintings from coming off.

Because the stone panels are about 1,300 years old, it is legitimate to ask: Are the stone panels strong enough? Will they not crack or break or crumble during disassembling and moving? Ironically, the agency’s work to preserve the ancient mound appears to have contributed to the deterioration.

A report to the task force said that the mold is believed to have invaded the stone chamber when work was done to reinforce the wall near the entrance in 2001. Because ticks that live on mold moved around inside the stone chamber, mold spores spread. It is also pointed out that later, for the purpose of disinfection, workers repeatedly went in and out of the chamber, which caused a rise in temperature that led to the spread of new mold. White mold was found in February 2001 and black mold in October 2002.

No doubt officials and researchers were unable to imagine the extent of damage the mold could cause. The wisdom of hindsight indicates that the agency should have roused the attention of experts and the public when mold was first detected. The agency should at least make public a chronology detailing the reported deterioration of conditions at the Takamatsuzuka ancient mound.

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