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The North Korean ‘unicorn lair discovery’ actually says a lot about real-life, non-unicorn archaeology

November 30, 2012
Everybody loves unicorns, especially

Everybody loves unicorns, especially “gentle maidens” (pictured) and North Korean archaeologists (not pictured). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

An announcement from the History Institute of the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences shocked the archaeological world Thursday, along with pretty much everyone else. It seems a “unicorn lair” from Korean mythology has been discovered in Pyongyang, the capital.

Reporting in the West has varied from basically straight (from U.S. News and World Report) to pretty hilarious (as in this from Gizmodo), to short pieces that suggest North Korea might be trying to get back at The Onion, to this from Macleans that includes a graf about Bigfoot.

One thing I stress to my students is to evaluate the analogies we use to classify different kinds of objects and sites. In other words, what leads us to refer to something as a ritual object vs. an ordinary tool, why do we say a particular building is a temple rather than a house, and so on. Or in this case, what makes a unicorn lair a unicorn lair? Fortunately for the North Korean archaeologists, they also found a stone with the inscription “Unicorn Lair” right outside. If only everything in this field were that simple.

But all snark aside, this story illustrates a very important point about archaeology, one that I think is crucial for anyone who wants to understand how this field works and why we study the times and sites we do.

Briefly: Archaeology is a social practice, not a quest for The Objective Truth.

To expand: Archaeologists are regular people who just happen to pursue a slightly odd profession. Since we’re regular people, we’re all members of particular social classes, particular races, particular sexes, and we all bring our more or less unique backgrounds and understandings of what is interesting and important into our research. All of those things, which are affected in important ways by the culture we were brought up in, influence our theoretical position, which is simply a fancy way of saying “how we think the world works.” Our theory and our cultural position both affect the sites we want to excavate and the interpretations we bring to make sense out of the bits of things we excavate.

What’s interesting about that is how archaeologists who live in different parts of the world often approach their work in ways that line up with national boundaries. You can identify general “traditions” in how archaeologists use theory and apply interpretations, based on their country of origin. So you can speak of broad similarities among Mexican archaeologists, U.S. archaeologists, Russian archaeologists, Danish archaeologists, and so on. There are always exceptions and counter-traditions, of course, but it’s interesting how often similarities crop up.

This idea was advanced by archaeologist Bruce Trigger in 1984, with an article describing how archaeology often breaks down into nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist traditions, based largely on the history of the country that produced the archaeologist. You can read the article at this link (it’s a PDF. Fair warning: It’s not the easiest read).

Which brings us back to North Korea and the “unicorn lair.” What’s really important about the lair isn’t the unicorn, but the association with King Tongmyong, who the North Korean press release (linked in the first paragraph) notes was the “founder of the Koguryo Kingdom,” the largest of the ancient kingdoms of what now make up the modern Koreas. The lair’s presence in Pyongyang, by extension, places Tongmyong in Pyongyang. And that, as the press release smugly concludes, “proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom.”

Regardless of whether any of that is true, this “discovery” is an example of nationalist archaeology at work, in Trigger’s sense. It’s archaeology designed to inspire patriotism by drawing on an image of the past that carries great resonance with the people of your nation. In this case, it’s even more nationalistic, considering the separation of the Koreas, and the fact that Koguryo Kingdom extended deep into what’s now South Korea. The message is subtle but clear: This major figure in Korean history, whose realm extended into both Koreas, lived in the North. We know this because we “found” a site linked to his palace. By extension, the North has a right to the South.

So there’s an actual lesson in this story, despite how funny it seems on the surface. Archaeologists, as my former professor Randy McGuire noted in his book Archaeology as Political Action, “work in an ideology factory.” Our work is always political, in that how we interpret the past is influenced by our social position, and can be read as commentary on the contemporary world. The “unicorn lair discovery” demonstrates this once again.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2012 12:09 am

    I have been watching some Korean Historical Films on the Internet. It is interesting that this particular depiction of a unicorn has a billy goats beard. Similar as how described in the video series about Yi-San. In one part in the series a Chinese official asked a woman to draw one of these beasts told in legends to prove She was a real artist. Both the Chinese and the North Koreans described the mythical creature in a similar manner. There are many legends told of that time. I think some of the things are symbolic of the aid of heaven. For instance another famous king Jumong or Chomong was said to have been carried to heaven on the back of dragon. Sometimes the legends are a way of explaining how great the person was in real life.

  2. December 1, 2012 9:26 pm

    Reblogged this on Archaeology Fantasies and commented:
    This is a great post about how ideology can influence how archaeologists interpret their findings, and how, sometimes, societies will use archaeology in politics.

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