Friday, October 29, 2010

Songhakdong, Ancient Tombs in Goseong

As the bus approached the Goseong bus terminal, seven carefully manicured Gaya tombs erupted from the land. The careful trimming of the grasses is a sign of veneration to the deceased as respect must be maintained by traditional standards up to the fourth generation. However, these tombs are from an ancient era, the Gaya confederacy (42-532 CE). The language of the time was Old Korean and the religions were the indigenous shamanism as well as the not-so-long previously introduced Buddhism. The people buried were interred under religous practices of respecting the dead (a combination of both religions?) and the deceased were the royal polities. Actually, it is believed that these massive earthen tomb sites were built in the latter couple of centuries of the confederacy, or loose grouping of city-states, and thus the reason for carefully maintaining some of the founding "fathers" graves.

Of all the ancient kingdoms, the Gaya confederacy seems to have had the most international relations and trade with Japan, and this relationship seems to be reflected in tomb no. 1. Both Korean and Japanese historians debate the shape of tomb no. 1 because of its shape, which is similar to the Japanese front-square-rear-circle style tombs. (Korea, due to its 35 years of forced colonization by Japan from 1910-1945, still have much residual resentment about having "things Japanese" discoloring their history. Both cultures make claims for passing their culture on to each other; both cultures claim to be the first one to have a cultural attribute as neither one wants to admit that they "learned" or "acquired" knowledge from the "competitor".)

Archaeology of the Tombs

Donga University Museum examined the tombs from November 1999 to February 2000. Here are some of their findings:

(1) All tombs mounds were set and hardened artificially by the Panchuk technique: flatten the hill and each subsequent layer is hardened before proceeding.
(2) Tomb No. 1 is a group of three overlapping mounds containing 17 stone coffins and stone chambers, thereby proving to be different from the Japanese front-square-rear-circle tomb style.
(3) No. 1B-1 northernmost stone-chamber tomb has a style different from other Gaya tombs. It is confirmed to be a colored tomb with its entrance, stone walls, and ceiling painted red.
(4) 1,000 artifacts were unearthed: pottery, gilt-bronze earrings, horse gear, big silver thread-decorated daggers, high bronze cups, and glass beads.
(5) From the unearthed artifacts, the tumuli are believed to date back to the Small Gaya Dynasty in the latter 5th C and first half of 6th C. They are presumed to be the tombs of rulers and kings of the dynasty, and this Goseong tomb site is known to be the location of the Small Gaya.

The South Side of the Tombs

The Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) was a period in Korean history when Confucianism flourished. Either in that time or since, a dense bamboo thicket was planted on the southern side, the typical side for planting bamboo based on reasoning steeped in pungsujiri and the symbol of bamboo for "straight" "correct" "scholarly" and probably a host of other traditionally held beliefs about bamboo. Walking around the lumpy royal graveyard, I passed some elderly Koreans harvesting some bamboo - for food? pencil containers and other household items? They waved their machetes friendly and happy that I was interested in their labor.

The Goindol Before

In front of the seven tombs sits a lone dolmen, a prehistoric tomb representative of the Bronze age. This goindol or jiseongmyo (dolmen) was not originally located here but was brought in to represent an even more ancient Korean people-group, one even more mysterious than the Gaya. This style of stone tomb is found widely in the Korean peninsula, through northeastern regions of China, and extends into the Kyushu region in Japan. This is a particularly rare goindol for it has 30 holes like cupolas 2.5cm in diameter. Seven of the holes are presumed to symbolize the Big Dipper, of spiritual significance in Korean society.

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