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Joseon’s portable sundial returns to peninsula

Posted August. 19, 2022 07:52,   

Updated August. 19, 2022 07:52


A portable globe-shaped sundial, the first known historical item of its kind in history which dates back to the Joseon Dynasty, has been retrieved by the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) and the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation (OKCHF).

The Iryeongwongu (spherical sundial) produced during the Joseon Dynasty back in the 19th century was disclosed at a press conference held on Thursday at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Jongno-gu, central Seoul. The sundial was returned from the United States. Although around 10 pieces of the Angbuilgu, a well-known hemispherical sundial type, have been discovered up to date, it is the first time that a globular sundial was found.

The 23.8-centimeter--high Iryeongwongu, a bronze spherical body with a diameter of 11.2 centimeters fixated on a cross-shaped base, has the 12 animals of the zodiac and 96 vertical lines inscribed on the globe to tell the time. The day was divided into 12 hours and 96 gak (15 minutes) in the Joseon Dynasty.

Unlike the Angbuilgu with the siban (round base plate) and the gnomon (rod to cast a shadow fixated to the body), the globular body of the Iryeongwongu is rotated according to the sun movement just as a globe is revolved. Once the T-shaped shadow of a needle is cast right on a vertical groove on the globular part, it tells the time.

Although the Angbuilgu tells the time where it is installed, the Iryeongwongu allows you to know what time it is no matter where you are – even regardless of latitude - if the sun is up in the sky. “This item not only applies the 12 traditional animals of the zodiac but also is equipped with a latitude adjustment device,” Honorary Professor Lee Yong-sam of Astronomy and Space Science at Chungbuk National University said in a surprised tone. “It is one of the most remarkable steps forward taken by scientists in the late decades of the Joseon Dynasty.”

Given that we are aware of in what year it was created by whom, it carries incredibly historical value. One of the hemispheres has a phrase saying, “Newly created at the beginning of the 7th lunar month of the gyeongin year or the 499th year of the founding of the Joseon Dynasty,” with a seal of Sang Jik-hyeon inscribed on it. This shows us that Sang Jik-hyeon is the producer of this sundial.

The Annals of King Gojong and the Daily Record of the Grand Secretariat write that Sang Jik-hyeon was appointed as byeoljang and byeolgunjik, military posts in charge of safeguarding the king, the palace or the capital area in the garrison chongeoyeong, according to the CHA. Also, he visited the Japanese Empire in 1880 as part of the diplomatic corps of Joseon Susinsa. His son, Sang Woon, is known as the person who brought a telephone to the Joseon Dynasty for the first time from the Qing Dynasty.

The Iryeongwongu was kept by a U.S. private collector who acquired it from a U.S. military officer who had been stationed in Japan in the 1940s. As soon as the device was up for auction, it was actioned off by the CHA and the OKCHF. This rare historical sundial will be displayed at the special exhibition Treasures of Ours scheduled on Friday at the National Palace Museum.