New Evidence of Human Sacrifice in Silla Dynasty’s Wolseong Palace
Archaeological excavations at the ancient Silla palace of Wolseong in Gyeongju, South Korea have produced new evidence confirming that human sacrifices took place there during the structure’s construction phase, in the fourth century AD.
Korean folk history has long claimed that the Silla Kingdom, which ruled a united Korea for much of the first millennium AD, practiced ritual human sacrifice. Scholars had long dismissed such stories as myths, but this shocking discovery shows (once again) that some myths are based in reality.
While digging near the western wall of the gigantic ancient castle, which forms the centerpiece of the 50-acre (200,000 square-meter) Wolseong palace site, archaeologists from the Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage unearthed the skeletal remains of a human being. Analysis revealed that the bones belonged to a young woman, who the researchers estimate would have been in her 20s when she died (or more correctly, when she was killed).
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Arial view of the extensive Wolseong Palace site. The area marked with a red circle is where human remains have recently been discovered. (Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)
Notably, this is not the first time that bodies have been found in this location. In 2017, archaeologists working for the same institution dug up the skeletal remains of two people (a man and woman in their 50s) near the exact same section of the castle wall. In fact, these graves were found less than two feet (50 centimeters) from where the remains of the young woman were unearthed in 2021.
Where human remains of the suspected human sacrifice were discovered, near the western gate of Wolseong Palace’s western wall. (Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)
None of these skeletal remains showed signs of physical damage, making it impossible to tell exactly how they died. The young women was buried with a few personal items, including bracelets and a necklace made from glass beads. An earthen vase found next to her may have been used to consume some type of beverage in conjunction with the sacrificial ritual (similar pottery was found entombed with the other two bodies). Most revealing of all was the fact that animal bones were buried nearby, as might be expected if sacrifices to the gods or to supernatural forces were taking place at this location.
Analyzing all the contextual clues, the archaeologists have concluded these individuals must have been the victims of human sacrifice.
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The remains of the adult female were discovered just 50 centimeters (1.64 feet) above the remains found in 2017. (Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea)
“The three bodies are buried in the section built [prior] to the main wall of the rampart,” Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage researcher Jang Gi-myung told the Korean media during an online press conference. “Based on the fact that they are located near the main entrance … along with the selected bones of animals as if protecting the wall, we [can] assume that they were buried as part of a ritual for the safe construction of the architecture.”
Dating tests indicate the young woman was likely buried sometime in the fourth century AD, when archaeologists now believe the royal palace complex at Wolseong was built. A close study of her skeleton and the skeletons of her sacrificial companions has revealed that all three suffered from nutritional deficiencies, which stunted their growth and caused them to suffer from serious dental problems.
Historical research had previously established that ancient Silla society was rigidly hierarchical, and it would seem sacrificial victims were chosen from a lower stratum of that society.
The young woman’s remains and grave goods of jewelry and an earthen vase. (Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea / Korea Herald)
Incredibly, even more skeletons have been found buried nearby. Excavations performed back in 1985 and 1990 unearthed the remains of about 20 individuals from the Silla period, approximately 33 feet (10 meters) from the site where the three more recent discoveries were made. These individuals also may have been the victims of human sacrifice, although researchers can’t confirm that theory.
“As for the remains of the 20 people, only three people’s remains were in good condition while the rest were just scattered across a vast area with animal bones,” Jang explained. “It is certain that they are related to Wolseong, but we need to conduct more research to find out if they were human sacrifices.”
The Silla Kingdom and a United Ancient Korea
During the fourth century, when the royal palace at Wolseong was constructed in its capital city of Gyeongju, the Silla Kingdom was one of three kingdoms that controlled various sections of Korean territory. In 676, the Silla monarchy united the three kingdoms under its rule through military conquest. They maintained Silla authority over a united Korea until the early 10th century, when internal divisions tore the kingdom apart.
Under the Silla Kingdom’s control, Korea became a wealthy and prosperous nation. Many grand and magnificent temples and palaces were built, honoring the Buddha in the first instance and the aristocrats that ruled this rigidly class-divided society in the other.
Buddhism had arrived in Korea during the fifth century, and as its influence rapidly spread it soon became the official religion in the region. Its themes dominated the art and architecture of the time. But when the palace was under construction at Wolseong, Buddhism had not yet begun to exert an influence on the Silla people’s spiritual beliefs. Older religious practices still predominated, including (it appears) those that sanctioned some form of human sacrifice.
A Dark Practice Revealed
Korean folklore had long told tales of an ancient spiritual practice known as Inju, which sanctioned the killing of human beings as a way to gain favor with the gods. Under the customs of Inju, human beings would be ritually sacrificed and buried under or alongside new buildings, to ensure those structures would remain sturdy and safe for centuries to come.
Scholars had always been skeptical of these claims, which they thought may have originated from tall tales told by the Silla Kingdom’s enemies in the ancient past. Even after the first two bodies were discovered at the Wolseong Palace site, one influential expert was not yet convinced they were the victims of human sacrifice.
When interviewed in 2017, Choi Byung-heon, professor emeritus of archaeology at Soongsil University, cautioned against jumping to that conclusion too quickly. In 2021, however, Choi is singing a different tune.
“Now with the additional discovery, there’s no denying the Silla’s practice of human sacrifice,” Choi recently declared.
Choi places great meaning in the fact that the three individuals were buried on the bottommost layer of the fortress wall, right in front of the palace’s west gate.
“After finishing off the foundation and moving onto the next step of building the fortress, I guess it was necessary to really harden the ground for the fortress to stand strong. In that process, I think the Silla people held sacrificial rites, giving not only animals but also humans as sacrifices,” Choi explained.
As of now, it isn’t known how widespread the practice of human sacrifice was during the Silla Kingdom. It also isn’t known when the practice started or stopped. It might be presumed that it ended once Buddhism became the dominant religion in Korea, but that can’t be established for sure.
From now on, archaeologists exploring ancient sites in South Korea will at least be aware of the possibility that human sacrifices might have occurred on Korean soil many centuries ago. If further evidence of the practice’s reality is ever uncovered, archaeologists will be certain to recognize it and report it for what it is.
Top image: Earthenware from the Silla Kingdom was found beside the bones under the west walls of the Wolseong palace in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. Source: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea / Korea Herald
By Nathan Falde