Mural shards key to temple's past

The Asahi Shimbun, Dec 3, 2004

The fragments may prove the original building went up in flames in the seventh century.

NARA, Japan -- Recently unearthed fragments of murals exposed to intense heat may unlock a centuries-old mystery behind the history of Horyuji temple in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture.

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The Ikaruga town board of education said Wednesday about 60 pieces of early seventh-century, multicolor wall paintings, possibly the nation's oldest, have been discovered at the temple.

The temple is said to have been built in 606 or 607 by Prince Shotoku.

The mural pieces were exposed to at least 1,000-degree heat, attesting to an account in the ``Nihon Shoki'' (Chronicles of Japan). Completed in 720, it says the temple's original Wakakusa Precinct, or compound, burned down in 670.

Whether the temple burned down and was rebuilt as the chronicles say or its original structure remains has been a topic of much debate among architecture and art-history experts.

Town officials and researchers said the fragments are likely from mural paintings in the old main hall or pagoda destroyed in the fire. What they depicted is not known.

Haruyuki Tono, a professor of Japanese ancient history at Nara University, said the findings are ``significant'' evidence of the fire. He noted that doubters of the fire theory have argued there were not many burned roof tiles found at the site.

``(The unearthed pieces) also show that it was probably a large-scale fire as Nihon Shoki describes,'' he said.

The ruined foundation of the Wakakusa Precinct was unearthed in 1939, but there has been no definite evidence of the fire. The current structure is called Saiin, or the Western Precinct.

Newly unearthed pieces were found during an excavation under way from September near the Great South Gate. The site was a 3-meter-deep valley, where burned rubble was probably thrown, town officials said.

The pieces were scattered in a 20- to 30-centimeter layer of soil, about 2 meters deep. Burned roof tiles found with the mural pieces were made in a style common to the early seventh century, they said.

The largest piece measures 5 by 4 cm. Some had traces of colors, apparently altered due to intense heat, such as reddish brown, lead gray, beige and grayish green.

The National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara, confirmed iron ingredients for red and copper for green or blue.

Because the 1,000-degree temperatures baked wall mud into porcelain-like material, and pieces of molten metal were also found, researchers believe the fire burned down not only the original temple's outer structure but inside as well.

Art historian Akio Donohashi, a professor at Kobe University who examined the mural pieces, surmises the paintings may have depicted some story, such as the life of Buddha.

He said it was probably not like a large wall painting of the current Main Hall. Most of that mural was lost in a 1949 fire.

Horyuji was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. The town will hold an on-the-spot briefing on the findings Saturday and Sunday.