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Silla Kingdom Princess’ Grave Is Dripping with Gold and Privilege

Silla Kingdom Princess’ Grave Found Dripping With Gold

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A treasure trove of ancient and valuable artifacts have recently been discovered at a tomb located in southeastern South Korea , reports The Korea Times . According to the Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage (GNRICH), these artifacts can be traced back to the legendary 5th century Silla Kingdom, which ruled much of the Korean Peninsula for nearly 1,000 years (from 57 BC to 935 AD).

At a press conference on December 7, GNRICH officials released a detailed list of the items that had been found inside the tomb. This impressive and virtually priceless haul included:

  • A gilt-bronze crown
  • Pairs of gold pendants and earrings
  • A gold chest ornament
  • A dozen gold and silver bracelets and rings
  • Multiple gilt-bronze ornaments decorated with golden-edged jewel beetles
  • A stone mortar and pestle
  • A knife decorated in silver
  • 50 pieces of mica, which in the Taoist tradition are believed to deliver eternal youth and longevity
  • Hundreds of Go (baduk) stones, which were used to play an ancient East Asian board game

Archaeologists found these rare items while digging at the massive Jjoksaem Excavation site near the city of Gyeongju, on South Korea ’s east coast 371 kilometers from Seoul. Home to nearly 300,000 people in the present day, Gyeongju has been occupied continuously for centuries, and was once the capital city of the mighty Silla Kingdom.

The site of the Silla Kingdom tomb no. 44 which archaeologists at Jjoksaem in Gyeongju, South Korea, have been excavating. Go stones were discovered near the bottom of the tomb and jewel beetle ornaments near the top. (Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

The site of the Silla Kingdom tomb no. 44 which archaeologists at Jjoksaem in Gyeongju, South Korea, have been excavating. Go stones were discovered near the bottom of the tomb and jewel beetle ornaments near the top. (Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

Who Was She? The Silla Kingdom Artifacts Reveal All

Based on the material nature of the artifacts discovered, and the advanced craftsmanship responsible for their creation, the GNRICH team has concluded that tomb number 44 was the burial site of a female who hailed from an aristocratic family . They estimate she was entombed at this location sometime in the late 5th century AD, when the Silla Kingdom still shared power on the Korean Peninsula with the Baekje and Goguryeo Kingdoms (the Silla Kingdom conquered both and unified the Peninsula in 668 AD).

“There is a possibility that the [tomb’s owner] is an under aged person, as the size of the accessories are overall smaller than those found at other ancient tombs,” explained an excited Sim Hyeon-cheol, a GNRICH-affiliated researcher who spoke with South Korea ’s Yonhap News Agency .

Archaeologists at the ancient Silla Kingdom tomb in Gyeongju in South Korea found a veritable treasure trove of valuable artifacts, including gold accessories. (Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

Surprising Discovery of Baduk Stones: Did Women Play Go?

Archaeologists have been working at tomb number 44 since it was first excavated in 2014. Six years later it is still capable of producing surprises. In this case, it was the presence of the baduk stones that GNRICH personnel found most notable. These stones have been found at Gyeongju excavation sites before, but only in the tombs of males from noble or royal families. This had led GNRICH researchers to conclude that only aristocratic men or boys were allowed to play baduk ( a game known as Go in most of East Asia).

Natural Go stones were found in the ancient Silla Kingdom tomb in Gyeongju in South Korea. (Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

This intellectually challenging game was invented in China in approximately 500 BC and is still around today, giving it the title of the oldest continuously played board game in the world. While 21 st century enthusiasts come from a wide range of backgrounds, the game was strictly confined to elite circles during the time of the Silla Kingdom, when even recreational activities were governed by caste system rules.

Clearly, if baduk was normally reserved for men the young woman buried in tomb number 44 was exempted from the rules. Perhaps she was considered to be a special person, or perhaps women from aristocratic backgrounds were allowed to practice this exalted game after all. Either way, as Sim Hyeon-cheol notes, this new discovery “gives new interpretation and meaning to [ancient] baduk culture.”

Image of Chinese woman playing Go from time of Tang Dynasty around 744 AD. Previously it was believed that baduk, the board game known as Go, was reserved for men. This latest discovery will lead experts to question this assumption. ( Public domain )

The Bone-Ranking System of the Silla Kingdom

The Silla Kingdom is viewed with fascination by archaeologists, who’ve been able to uncover the truth about the rigid caste system that determined life chances for the Kingdom’s citizens through their work at Gyeongju. The bounty of priceless items found in the young woman’s tomb is typical of the immense wealth and lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Silla elites, to whom a privileged life was taken as a birthright.

During the 6 th century AD, the unyielding and unforgiving caste traditions that defined life in the Silla Kingdom were codified under a system called “golpum”, which has been translated to “bone-rank.” The enigmatic bone-rank system was applied only to those who were descended from either royalty or nobility, and it is they who were granted exclusive access to positions of political power in Gyeongju.

Decorations from golden-edged jeweled beetles found in tomb No. 44 at Jjoksaem in Gyeongju, 
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea (Image: Gyeongju National Research
 Institute of Cultural Heritage)

To become a king or queen in the Silla Dynasty, one had to be of full royal blood, meaning candidates were required to be descended from previous kings and queens on both sides of their family. Individuals with this genetic profile were classified as seonggol, or “sacred bone,” signifying their virtually godlike status.

Next in rank were those who carried royal genes from one side of their family but noble genes from the other, and they were known as jingol or “true bone.” They occupied important positions directly below monarchs, although they could never become a king or queen no matter how qualified and proficient they might be.

A notch below the bone-ranks were the head ranks, classified by stratus 6, 5, and 4 in descending order of importance and privilege. These individuals carried a mixture of royal, noble, and commoner blood, and they preserved enough status to be eligible to hold ministerial or military posts, or occupy other less prestigious spots on the royal governing hierarchy. Significantly, no archaeological discoveries have unearthed data about head ranks 3, 2, or 1, who presumably were tasked to serve the whims of Silla elites.

Overall, what the ongoing excavations at Gyeongju have revealed is detailed information about the architecture of an extraordinarily strict caste system, which heaped wealth and privilege on a chosen few and left the remaining scraps to those who were lucky enough to have a few droplets of royal or noble blood circulating through their veins.

Death Knows No Castes

At this time, little is known about the true identity of the young woman who once occupied tomb number 44 and her highly-ranked bones have long since turned to dust. Further exploration of the site could find evidence to suggest she was descended from royalty, which may explain why she was buried with riches and allowed to play a privileged game.

Regardless of her exact status, it is clear that she lived a life of luxury and leisure, right up to the moment of her untimely death. The fact that she died so young reveals an important fact about caste systems , which is that no matter how pampered and privileged someone might be, no amount of wealth can protect them from the cruel and tragic hand of fate.

Rule - They Shaped the Ancient WorldCleopatra’s strength was her keen intellect, Queen Nefertiti was almost a goddess, Viking Chief Tore Hund was a hero of his people, and Marcus Aurelius was a respected emperor. From the strong and masterful to the shrewd and brave, the world has been forever changed by popular leaders throughout time. Though perhaps flawed and not always beloved, these rulers gained a reputation for unforgettable leadership. Read all about them in this Ancient Origins special available here.

 

Top image: The Silla tomb no. 44 was found to contain jewel beetle ornaments. The ones here are replicas made for reference. Source: Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage

By Nathan Falde

Comments

Nathan:

Thanks so much for the information pertaining to the recent discovery of the tomb of the ‘Silla Princess’ in Korea.

The city of Gyeongju or ‘Kyong-Ju Province’ in South Korea has often been compared to the ‘Valley of the Kings’ in Egypt, since so many royal burials of the ‘Silla Kingdom’ have been discovered & excavated there for in significant numbers. One wonders if the ‘Princess’ was a contemporary and perhaps personally familiar or even related to the ‘unknown king’ (‘Cheonmachong’ or Tomb No.155) whose grave was excavated there in 1973.

The ‘Silla Kingdom’ as opposed to other ancient Korean Dynasties, etc., appears to have had the earliest frequent ‘contact’ with other cultures throughout its existence, which reveals perhaps their mixed ancestry with other diverse ethnic groups in the region. I always thought it fascinating that the horse or ‘CHEONMA,’ is portrayed in Silla tombs with “eight legs” as well as wings on its feet, thus bearing affinities with ‘SLEIPNIR,’ or the ‘eight-legged’ horse of Odin. Horse skeletons & trappings seem to be a dominant theme in funerary goods among the Silla as well, thus causing many scholars to link them to the ‘Saka’ or Scythian tribes. Various artifacts found in the early period of the ‘Silla Kingdom’ bear striking similarities to the ‘kobuns’ or burial mounds of Siberia, such as the frozen tombs of the Scythians in the Altai Mountains.

Tall, slim individuals are often portrayed bearing facial features with ‘long noses,’ sculptured on the walls of ‘Sokkuram Cave, Temple at Mt. Toham,’ in Kyongju, South Korea, while even glass vessels of Roman provenance, have also been discovered within gravesites in the above South Korean southern province, denoting at least a definite trade route or possible visit by Westerners to the Korean Peninsula, many centuries ago.

Though in North Korea, the Manchus also mention a tribe known as the ‘Oroch,’ but referred to in Chinese as the ‘Ch’ih Mao Tze’ or “Red Hair People.” The early history of the East definitely has much left to be examined. Thanks again for a fine article.

Dr. Dan

 

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