The Unicorn Lair

It’s not often you run across a blog post that includes references to Archaeologist Randall Mcguire AND unicorns. (Bonus: it’s well worth the read).

If you’ve got that nasty cold that’s going around, you’re excused if you saw the news stories from North Korea trumpeting the discovery of a unicorn lair and vowed to lay off the Nyquil. It wasn’t the drugs talking, the North Korean government really put out a news release trumpeting their discovery of a unicorn lair. Since this is the kind of internet treasure that’s prone to vanishing without a trace, I’m going to post the entire press release:

Lair of King Tongmyong’s Unicorn Reconfirmed in DPRK

Pyongyang, November 29 (KCNA) — Archaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences have recently reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo Kingdom (B.C. 277-A.D. 668).

The lair is located 200 meters from the Yongmyong Temple in Moran Hill in Pyongyang City. A rectangular rock carved with words “Unicorn Lair” stands in front of the lair. The carved words are believed to date back to the period of Koryo Kingdom (918-1392).

Jo Hui Sung, director of the Institute, told KCNA:
“Korea’s history books deal with the unicorn, considered to be ridden by King Tongmyong, and its lair.

The Sogyong (Pyongyang) chapter of the old book ‘Koryo History’ (geographical book), said: Ulmil Pavilion is on the top of Mt. Kumsu, with Yongmyong Temple, one of Pyongyang’s eight scenic spots, beneath it. The temple served as a relief palace for King Tongmyong, in which there is the lair of his unicorn.
The old book ‘Sinjungdonggukyojisungnam’ (Revised Handbook of Korean Geography) complied in the 16th century wrote that there is a lair west of Pubyok Pavilion in Mt. Kumsu.

The discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom.”

Maclean’s had some fun with announcement:

To give North Korea a little credit, the news agency just says that they have reconfirmed the lair of the unicorn, and not the unicorn itself. Finding a unicorn would just be crazy, but finding its living quarters helps prove that North Korea’s version of history is factual.

Or maybe something got lost in translation.

But back to the (more) serious piece I mentioned at the start of this post…on his blog, Digs and Docs, Archaeologist John Roby posted this piece on the subject: “The North Korean ‘unicorn lair discovery’ actually says a lot about real-life, non-unicorn archaeology.”

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.

Roby then expands on this point for a few more paragraphs and supplies links to more reading, if you’re so inclined.

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