The Ancient Complex of Koguryo Tombs in North Korea

The Ancient Complex of Koguryo Tombs in North Korea

(Read the article on one page)

The Complex of Koguryo Tombs is a spectacular ancient site, which became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site to be listed in North Korea when it was inscribed in July 2004. The complex consists of several group and individual tombs, dating to the later period of the Koguryo Kingdom, and are the most well-known cultural heritage remains of the Kingdom. Many of the Koguryo (Gorguyeo) tombs contain beautiful wall paintings, which offer us a glimpse into the lives of the people living in the ancient Koguryo Kingdom

The Koguryo Kingdom was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and existed between the 3 rd century B.C. and the 7 th century A.D.  At its height of power in the 5 th century A.D., its territory included northeast China and the northern half of the Korean peninsula. The Koguryo Tombs are located in the cities of Pyongyang and Nampho.

The tombs are built of stone and covered by earthen mounds or more stone. Many of the Koguryo tombs in the World Heritage Site contain beautiful wall paintings, most of which are produced with Chinese ink and pigments painted onto the plastered interior walls of the burial chambers. The paintings cover a wide range of subjects, which include portraits of the tomb owner, activities of everyday life, mythical beings and supernatural creatures, as well as decorative designs, such as the lotus flower. Thus, these images allow some understanding of this people’s daily life, aesthetic appreciation, and even religious beliefs.

Engraving of Hyonmu - Koguryo Tombs

Engraving of Hyonmu (tortoise and snake), one of the four gods. Image source .

Koguryo Tomb murals

Koguryo Tomb murals. Photo source .

The portraits of the tomb owners bring to life the faces of many of the ancient inhabitants of the Koguryo Kingdom. For instance, in the Anak Tomb No. 3, there is a portrait of its owner, Dong Shou, who was the last ruler of the Daifang Commandery of Han China. In the painting, Dong Shou is depicted as wearing Chinese costume and sitting upon a throne of state under a canopy, where he attends to the reports of his subordinate officials. Despite the presence of Dong Shou’s name, biography, and dates, there are alternative theories regarding the actual owner of the tomb, which are still being argued even today.

Figure: Portrait of Dong Shou. Source.

It has generally been agreed that the Koguryo Kingdom was proto-Korean in nature. In 2002, however, this view was re-evaluated when the Chinese Academy of Social Science, which is a government-backed think tank, established the ‘Northeast Project’, whose goal was to recast the pre-modern histories of Manchuria and Korea. The project came to a conclusion that the Koguryo was not an autonomous political entity, but a vassal of China. It is no wonder that the Project has been accused of distorting Koguryo history, as it is an attack right at the core of Korean identity. China’s attempt to claim the Koguryo Kingdom as its own, however, is far from over. A Koguryo stele, or memorial stone, unearthed last year, is being investigated by a closed team of Chinese scholars. Unsurprisingly, South Korea has claimed that this is another attempt by China to incorporate the kingdom into its own history.

I suppose the past is never really dead, and is often resurrected to serve the present. Staking a claim on the past is not restricted to the realm of academia, but has real, tangible effects on a region’s political stage, as demonstrated by the case of the Koguryo Tombs. To some extent then, history is as dangerous a force as politics, and has the power to stir up trouble.

Featured image: Koguryo Tombs . Photo source .

By Ḏḥwty


Choe, K.-s., 2004. Historic Remains Recognized by UNESCO. [Online]
Available at:

Gries, P. H., 2005. The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today. [Online]
Available at:

Park, M.-h., 2013. China Conducting Closed Research into Ancient Korean Dynasty. [Online]
Available at:

Scofield, D., 2003. Northeast Asia's Intra-mural Mural Wars. [Online]
Available at:

UNESCO, 2014. Complex of Koguryo Tombs. [Online]
Available at:

Washburn, T., 2013. What Goguryeo's Buried Ghosts Mean for the Future of Sino-Korean Relations. [Online]
Available at:, 2014. Portrait of the Owner. [Online]
Available at:


what is benefit to china to incorporate this into china's history ?? Also: how does story like this get out when Nk is so secretive ? How do reporters there function under such blistered control ?

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Roman glass (not the legendary flexible glass). Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart.
Imagine a glass you can bend and then watch it return to its original form. A glass that you drop but it doesn’t break. Stories say that an ancient Roman glassmaker had the technology to create a flexible glass, ‘vitrium flexile’, but a certain emperor decided the invention should not be.

Human Origins

Photo of Zecharia Sitchin (left)(CC0)Akkadian cylinder seal dating to circa 2300 BC depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, and Enki, three members of the Anunnaki.(right)
In a previous 2-part article (1), the authors wrote about the faulty associations of the Sumerian deities known as the Anunnaki as they are portrayed in the books, television series, and other media, which promotes Ancient Astronaut Theory (hereafter “A.A.T.”).

Ancient Technology

Roman glass (not the legendary flexible glass). Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart.
Imagine a glass you can bend and then watch it return to its original form. A glass that you drop but it doesn’t break. Stories say that an ancient Roman glassmaker had the technology to create a flexible glass, ‘vitrium flexile’, but a certain emperor decided the invention should not be.

Ancient Places

Caves of Loltun, Mexico
It goes on speak about the challenges and wonders of Columbus’s voyage to the new lands known today as the Caribbean. It even goes on to mention Columbus’s blunder in assuming that this newly discovered land was India when in fact it was what we know today as the Bahamas.


Hopewell mounds from the Mound City Group in Ohio. Representative image
During the Early Woodland Period (1000—200 BC), the Adena people constructed extensive burial mounds and earthworks throughout the Ohio Valley in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Many of the skeletal remains found in these mounds by early antiquarians and 20th-Century archaeologists were of powerfully-built individuals reaching between 6.5 and eight feet in height (198 cm – 244 cm).

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article