Major Kingdom Finds Provide New Insights Into Ancient Korean Society
Two major recent Korean kingdom finds are providing archaeologists with new critical insights into the culture and history of Korea’s ancient past. Both of the recent finds date from the Silla Kingdom, which was crucial in the development of Korea. One of the Korean kingdom finds came from an elite burial tomb, where numerous new grave artifacts were found. The other find was the discovery of fish remains at a Silla site that may provide insights into the diet and religious practices of the kingdom and early Korean civilization.
The finds were made near the city of Gyeongju, which was the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC-935 AD). It was one of the famous “three kingdoms” that ruled what is now South and North Korea in ancient times. Eventually, the Silla conquered the other kingdoms, and, briefly, unified most of the Korean peninsula. The kingdom was greatly influenced by Chinese culture but was also instrumental in developing Korean culture. Silla was eventually subsumed into the Goryeo Kingdom.
The First Major Find Discovered In A New Silla-Era Tomb
The grave artifacts were found in a Silla-era royal tomb complex in Gyeongju in southeast Korea. The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) of Korea and local experts collaborated in the project. Archaeologist discovered the grave goods in what appears to be an elite burial tomb. The Korea Times reports that “The deceased buried in the Hwangnamdong Tumulus No. 120-2 presumed to be either an aristocrat or person of royal blood.” The remains of the individual were found interred in the tomb.
The CHA stated that “the height of the owner of the tomb is estimated at 170 centimeters,” according to The Korea Times. The sex of the person has not been established. A treasure horde of gilt-bronze precious objects was retrieved from the tomb to the amazement of the archaeologists.
Grave artifacts, ranging from a gilt-bronze coronet to shoes, have been discovered in an elite Silla Kingdom tomb, likely built 1,500 years ago. (Korea Cultural Heritage Administration)
A Gilt-Bronze Cornet: The Most Valuable Grave Good Find
A unique gilt-bronze coronet was uncovered in the elite tomb. Archaeology reports that the object has “three tree-like branches and has two antler-like prongs, is decorated with heart-shaped holes and jade and gold marbles.”
Close up of the coronet found in the elite Silla Kingdom tomb. (Korea Cultural Heritage Administration)
In addition, belts, chest laces, gold earrings, silver bracelets and a silver ring were also found. Two bronze gilded shoes were also found and they were decorated “with gilt-bronze ‘dalgae’ a bracelet-like ornament made with beads,” reports The Korea Times.
Preliminary research indicates that the burial dates back to 500 AD. While the tomb is small it appears that the person buried there owned a wide range of “luxury” goods and accessories. This demonstrates the wealth of the Silla Kingdom elite. This is the first time in 50 years that such a burial tomb has been found.
The Second Major Find: Many “Overlooked” Ancestral Offerings
The next major discovery related to the Silla kingdom was made in the famous royal Tomb of the Auspicious Phoenix, in Gyeongju. This double tomb, two separate tumuli, was likely constructed in the 4 th century AD. The tomb had been previously excavated and this was when the famous Gold Crown was found, which is regarded as a Korean national treasure.
Royal Crown of Silla from Seobongchong Tomb. (Ismoon (talk) 19:42, 30 January 2018 (UTC) (File:서봉총 금관 금제드리개.jpg: cropped and darkened background with Photoshop) / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The National Museum of Korea (NMK) decided to re-excavate the site because it had been previously been only investigated by the Japanese when they colonized the country in the 1920s. The NMK is quoted by The Korea Times as stating that “academic projects back then were distorted under the ideology of legitimization of Japanese colonial rule.”
The Korean investigators soon found that the Japanese archaeologists had made several mistakes and had overlooked many things. In particular, they had not recorded evidence of religious rites. The NMK team found 27 jars with the remains of bones that were probably offerings to ancestors. The researchers are quoted by The Korea Times as saying that “The custom of commemorative rites at the tomb was not discovered during the first excavation under Japanese colonial rule.” It appears that jars of food for the afterlife of the deceased were placed near the royal tomb.
Artifacts as they were found at the Seobongchong excavation site. (National Museum of Korea)
Dolphins, Blowfish and Sea Urchins In Jars
Of particular note, was the discovery almost 8000 bones, mostly of sea creatures, in some of the jars uncovered. The majority of the remains belong to dolphins, sea urchins, clams, fish and shellfish. Remarkably, a blowfish, which is poisonous and notoriously difficult to prepare, was also found. Pacific herring was also found in the tomb indicating that it was built in the autumn.
Donga.com reports that Kim Dae-hwan of the NMK as saying that “The animal remains discovered through the recent excavation reveal facts about not only the ancestral rites in Silla but also the eating habits of the times.” This is helping researchers to better understand royal rituals and rites in ancient Korea.
The finds show that ancient Koreans offered rare sea mammals and fish to their ancestors, which would have been difficult to obtain, and this illustrates the importance of ancestral rites. The finds also show the elite diet was varied, and that the people of the Silla Kingdom were capable fishermen.
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The Recent Finds Add To Our Understanding Of Silla Society
The latest discoveries are providing new insights into the ancient Korean kingdom and daily life. More discoveries are expected to be made at Gyeongju. At present there are a series of projects aimed at conserving the many archaeological sites in the area. Gyeongju is home to no less than three UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites, all related to the Silla Kingdom.
Top image: The Wolji (formerly Anapji) artificial pond located in Gyeongju National Park, South Korea, was constructed by the Silla Kingdom in 674 AD. The pond is not far from where the recent Korean kingdom finds were discovered. Source: Pixabay
By Ed Whelan