South Korea // Gyeongsang //

What’s green and lumpy?

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Every culture has its own solutions for what to do with the deceased. Tibetan corpses are often left on a mountainside for vultures to carry away, certain Filipino societies place the departed in a coffin and pack it into a cliff, while the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest choose to cremate their dead then eat the ashes with banana paste. Koreans have long preferred burial – a slightly more prosaic journey to the afterlife, for sure – and those who have travelled around the country a while will doubtless have seen the little green bumps that dot hills and mountains in the country’s rural areas. Larger versions used to be a matter of course for Korean royalty.

Literally hundreds of tombs from the Silla dynasty can be found all over Gyeongju and its surrounding area. However, the identities of few of the tombs’ occupants are known for sure – there were only 56 Silla kings, so it’s clear that many were created for lesser royals, military leaders and other prominent members of society. Equally mysterious are the interiors, as the super-simple green parabolas give almost no hints as to their construction; however, a look inside Cheonmacheong in Tumuli Park should provide a few hints. Layers of gravel and stone make up the base of the tomb, with a wooden chamber placed in the centre to house the deceased – unlike a Pharaoh, he or she would not have supervised the construction, but as in Egypt they would have been buried with some of their favourite belongings. The chamber was then covered with large, rounded stones (these would eventually crush the chamber, after sufficient putrefaction of the wood), which in turn was covered with clay and dirt, and sown with grass.

Given the riches inside, surprisingly few of the tombs were plundered for their treasures – while such an endeavour would be long and rather conspicuous, that didn’t stop thievery elsewhere in the country. Over the past century, many tombs have been carefully excavated, yielding thousands of artefacts, many of which are now on display in Gyeongju’s National Museum.

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