In the news: Horyuji Temple’s timbers dated to before the fire of 670

Summary: Recent research analysis of the materials preserved during the restorations done in the 1950s showed that the construction timbers were felled prior to 670. This suggests that the current Kondō was possibly already under construction when “the fire in 670” (as recorded in the Nihon shoki Chronicles) burned the former Wakakusa-Garan down.

Find rekindles debate over Horyuji Temple

NARA (Kyodo) Recent research has rekindled a century-old dispute among experts of ancient Japanese architecture over the age of one of the country’s most famous buildings.

News photo
Researchers at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties display pieces of timber from the ceiling of the main hall of Horyuji Temple, shown below.
News photo

Officials at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties have declared that the main hall of Horyuji Temple in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, was built after 668. The famous temple is popularly believed to have been rebuilt between 708 and 714 after being destroyed by a fire.

The growth rings of two pieces of timber used for ceiling boards in the “kondo,” or main hall, of the temple show that they were cut between 668 and 669 and between 667 and 668, respectively, according to the institute.

The temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world, has been designated as a national treasure and a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is said to have been originally built in 607.

Whether the temple, built by Prince Shotoku, remains as originally built or was rebuilt after the fire in 670 has been an issue of academic debate since the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

The institute said that although its researchers were unable to find any timber that dates back to the early seventh century, when the temple is said to have been built, the latest finding may spark fresh controversy as it lends support to the hypothesis that the main hall might date from before the fire.

“We were able to provide (researchers) with high-quality information regarding the age (of the timbers) of each building,” said institute researcher Takumi Mitsutani, who headed the study. “I hope that the debate (over Horyuji’s age) will be reactivated with these findings.”

The institute said construction of the main hall might have been started in the 660s, before the fire, because the ceiling boards are installed immediately before a building’s completion.

The smoldering debate over the building’s age was reignited in 2001, when it was discovered that the central pillar of the temple’s pagoda dated back to 594.

This is too old to consider Horyuji’s Western Precinct (Saiin), a major compound in which most of the temple buildings existing today are arranged, as having been rebuilt.

The mystery surrounding the central pillar has yet to be cleared up.

The Saiin had until then been widely considered a reconstruction, as remnants of what is believed to be the original Horyuji Temple were found in 1939.

For its latest study, the institute examined 107 timbers used in the main hall, pagoda and “chumon,” or inner gate, and was able to confirm the latest years when the timbers used in the buildings were cut.

They confirmed that the timbers used in the main hall had been cut between 668 and 669 and between 667 and 668, those used in the pagoda in 673 and those in the inner gate in 699.

From the findings, the institute concluded that the buildings of the temple were built in the order of the main hall, the pagoda and the inner gate.


See also “100 YEARS OLDER THAN SUPPOSED? World Heritage Pagoda
March 29, 2001 Japan Information Network


Using a combination of X-ray photography and dendrochronology (the dating of wood by examining the sequence of annual growth-ring widths), the recent scientific examination of the shinbashira of the pagoda, the “heart post” that passes through the center of the pagoda, showed that the hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood used for this post was felled in A.D. 594. Assuming this timber was used shortly after it was felled, it means that the construction of the pagoda took place not at the beginning of the eighth century (around 711), as is generally believed, but about a century earlier. This firm date for the felling of the tree used for the shinbashira raised the possibility that the Horyuji–one of Japan’s most important ancient monuments–may have been constructed earlier than previously thought. The generally held theory has it that Horyuji, including the pagoda, was first built around 607 by Prince Shotoku. These structures were burnt down in 670, and the temple was rebuilt some 100 meters away from the original site, being completed by around 711. Some theories raised to explain this gap between the 711 and 584 dates are that the present shinbashira originated from another temple and was reused for the Horyuji pagoda or that the timber was stored unused for an extended period until the building of the pagoda around 607 as is generally supposed.

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