The Tomb of King Muryeong in Gongju: the Most Important Ancient Tomb in South Korea

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There are many, many ancient royal tombs in South Korea (you can see some here), and archaeologists have made educated guesses about the identities of some of the people in those tombs. But there is only a single ancient tomb for which the identity of the occupants has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt.

Gongju

In 1971, archaeologists discovered another royal tomb in the town of Gongju, on a hill where other royal tombs had been found before. The team was extremely excited when they found something which had never been found in any other ancient Korean tomb excavation – I saw a bit of a video interview with a journalist who witnessed the event – a stone plaque with writing on it. The plaque said that this was the tomb of King Muryeong and his queen.

King Muryeong

King Muryeong

King Muryeong of Baekje is mentioned in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese historical records, and the historical records say that he ruled from 501-523 C.E., while the capital of Baekje was in Ungjin (now called Gongju).

An example of Baekje royal dress

An example of Baekje royal dress

In addition to the stone plaque, there were thousands of objects found inside the tomb, many in good shape, offering lots of new information about the Baekje kingdom.

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Tourists, of course, are not allowed inside the tombs because the humidity and wear and tear would damage them, but we can walk outside the tombs. It’s a cluster of seven royal tombs in all, with Tomb #7 being the tomb of King Muryeong and his queen.

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There are, however, full-sized replicas of the tombs, which visitors may walk inside.

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This is a replica of one of the earlier tombs (to be found by modern archaeologists – I don’t know if it is one of the older tombs on the hill).

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There’s also a little model explaining how ancient Baekje people made royal tombs.

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And then there is the replica of … I forget whether this is supposed to be Tomb #5 or Tomb #6.

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This tomb uses a construction style which was common in China at that type, but nowhere on the Korean peninsula other than Ungjin (which is now called Gongju). The clay needed to make these bricks is plentiful in China, but rare in Korea, so it is unusual that the Baekje royal family decided to use them. Well, they were clearly trying to copy Chinese ways.

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There were little holes in the walls where little incense burners could be placed, as shown above.

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I think the above is from the replica of King Muryeong’s tomb. You can see the paintings of the guardian animals.

In addition to copying a tomb construction style from China, an analysis found that the coffins of King Muryeong and his queen were made out of a kind of tree which only grows in a few places in Japan. Baekje has close ties with Japan during King Muryeong’s reign, and Japanese historical records emphasize King Muryeong’s ties to Japan. In fact, the modern day Japanese emperor Akihito has publicly said that he is a direct descendent of King Muryeong of Baekje (Japan’s Shoku Nihongi says that the mother of Emperor Kammu is descended from King Muryeong of Baekje). The most likely origin for the wood in King Muryeong and his queen’s coffin is Koyasan, which I had visited earlier in 2014. I always like it when two different places I visit are suddenly connected.

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I thought this was all pretty cool. No wonder it’s part of a tentative World Heritage site.

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After seeing the replicas and the exteriors of the real tombs, I walked over the hill to the Gongju National Museum, where I would be able to see some of the treasures which had been excavated from King Muryeong’s tomb.

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About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Art, Chungcheongnam, Mostly Photos, Museum and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Tomb of King Muryeong in Gongju: the Most Important Ancient Tomb in South Korea

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