Thursday, November 3, 2011
49. Roof Tile (Korea, AD 700-800)
This rather charming gargoyle dragon-face went on a roof at the corner or the end of a line of tiles; they were mass-produced, hand-sculpted, and like all gargoyles had the function of scaring away evil spirits. This tile is in the British Museum’s hard-to-find Korean room; one of MacGregor’s experts comments on the artistry here being extremely Korean, that is, a little unrefined but alive, vivid, as opposed to a fantasy Chinese roof-tile which would probably be more perfect but without quite so much heart. Not being one to indulge in such cultural stereotypes myself, I simply quote this one.
Historically, this period in Korean history was evidently an important point in terms of defining the nation as something that was distinct from Tang China and Japan, the two neighbors who have forever sought to swallow Korea up. However, today the city where this tile originated is claimed by South Korea as the center of Korean identity, so of course the North Koreans disclaim its role in their heritage. In the history of a city, the roof tile marks an important turning point—when they get rich enough to stop putting thatch on their roof and start using tile. Cities burn down a lot less frequently when they’ve got tile roofs. Thatch was cheaper (then—nowadays, in cute little villages around England, it’s picturesque, but bloody expensive) but much more temporary.
Above: adorable thatched roof we found on a house in the cute fishing village of Dragør, Denmark