Remnants of a lost kingdom

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Remnants of a lost kingdom

GORYEONG, North Gyeongsang province
Most Koreans probably couldn’t tell you where Goryeong county is, let alone identify it as the ancient capital of the kingdom of Daegaya. Only the large, rounded tombs that line the ridge of Mount Ju in Goryeong’s Jisan-dong neighborhood, and the old stone walls that still stand around the peak, offer a glimpse of that lost kingdom.
There are hundreds of these royal tombs atop Mount Ju. What distinguishes them from similar ancient tombs, such as the better-known ones in nearby Gyeongju, is that they are at the top of the mountain, some 311 meters (1,020 feet) above sea level. The smaller tombs, and the older ones, tend to be on lower ground.
“The tombs of the ruling class of Dagaya are on the ridgeline of mountains so that they could be seen from level ground, showing off the kingdom’s might, curator Lee Hyeong-gi writes in the book “Lost Kingdom: Daegaya.”

Daegaya was a part of Gaya, a larger federation of states that also included Aragaya, Geumgwangaya, Sogaya, Seongsangaya and Goryeonggaya. Locked between the kingdoms of Baekje and Silla, Gaya’s territory was what is now the western Gyeongsang and eastern Jeolla provinces. Daegaya existed for just over five centuries, from 42 to 562 A.D., before succumbing to Silla. After Daegaya fell, the state was made into a county of the Silla Dynasty, and was later renamed Goryeong.
What is known as the period of the Three Kingdoms ―Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla ―lasted from the early fourth century until the seventh century, when Silla unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time. As is clear from the very term “Three Kingdoms,” Gaya has been largely neglected in accounts of Korean history.
Gaya left few historical records, and is only briefly mentioned in well-known histories of the Three Kingdoms period, such as Samguk Yusa and Samgu Sagi. Indeed, because of the lack of documentation, we don’t know who is buried in most of the royal tombs on Mount Ju.
Still, Gaya made its contributions to Korean heritage ―one of the best-known being the gayageum, the 12-string Korean harp, which is believed to have been created by a Daegaya musician named Ureuk. It is said that Ureuk created the instrument, and wrote at least 12 songs for it, at the request of Daegaya’s King Gasil during the sixth century.
“The history in Samguk Yusa and Samguk Sagi is written with emphasis on the Three Kingdoms,” said Shin Jong-hwan, curator of the new Daegaya Museum in Goryeong country. “It was not until the unearthing of the 44th and 45th tombs in 1977 that historians obtained material to overcome the shortcomings in Gaya’s historical records.”
The effort to restore Gaya’s history began with those excavations in the late 1970s. “Daegaya was in its prime in the late fifth century,” Ju Bo-don, a history professor at Kyungpook National University, wrote in “Lost Kingdom: Daegaya.” “It was strong enough to overwhelm other Gaya states, and was on a par with Baekje and Silla.”
“Daegaya had its own culture that distinguished it from other states, including its method of entombing servants along with the royals. And it was well enough established that it had a central government,” Mr. Shin said.
One significant discovery made during the 1970s tomb excavations was evidence that Daegaya had engaged in trade with Japan and China ―suggesting that it was, indeed, a full-fledged state of its own. In the 44th tomb, researchers discovered a ladle made of luminous clamshell, similar to ones found on Japan’s Amamioshima island that dated from around the year 500. According to “Lost Kingdom: Daegaya,” such ladles were found at many sites, and were probably used in religious ceremonies.
Further evidence of contact between Gaya and Japan can be found on the Japanese island of Honshu, where there is a small village named Anamura whose earlier name, Aramura, came from the Gaya kingdom of Aragaya. There is even a Shinto shrine called Ara. Village history has it that a Silla prince once sought exile there, and that one of his servants came from Aragaya.
Japan is also home to many artifacts from Gaya, though some of them came over the sea much more recently than that.
In the early 1940s, when Korea was under Japanese rule, businessman Takenosuke Okura brought more than 1,100 Gaya artifacts to Japan; they were later donated to the Tokyo National Museum. The Okura collection remains one of the prominent Gaya-related collections.

To highlight its neglected heritage, Goryeong county opened the Daegaya Museum in April, adjacent to the Daegaya royal tomb exhibition hall, which had opened in September 2000. The museum differs from many other small, local museums in that it has staff who are able to do independent research and host educational events.
The staff says the museum gets about 1,300 visitors every day. During the Daegaya Cultural Festival, timed with the museum’s opening, more than 120,000 people visited the museum from around the country. By 2007, the county intends to build a Daegaya tourist park, with simulated tomb excavations and a Gaya-themed gift shop.
Daegaya Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Mondays and major holidays. From Seoul, the best way to get there by public transportation is to take KTX to Dongdaegu Station, take the subway to the West Bus Terminal and take a bus to the museum. Tickets are 1,500 won ($1.40) to 2,000 won. For more information, call 054-950-6071~3 or go to

by Limb Jae-un

The royal tombs in Goryeong bear evidence of an ancient Daegaya custom ―burying servants along with the kings. This practice existed in other Korean dynasties (and elsewhere in the workd), but seems to have been especially prevalent in Daegaya.
In the 44th tomb on Mount Ju, of which a replica has been built near the Daegaya Museum, there are 32 separate stone chambers, where the remains of what are believed to have been at least 36 people were found.
The main chamber, where a king and two others were interred, is about nine meters long, two meters high and two meters wide, and shaped as if to provide an adequate living space.
In the other chambers, alongside the human remains, were found ceramics, saddles, knives, arrowheads, fishnet sinkers and spindles, suggesting that those interred came from a variety of professions, and were expected to serve the king in the afterlife. Fruit seeds and chicken and horse bones were also found, in jars.
There is no record of whether or not these people volunteered for their service in the next world, but evidence of wounds suggests that at least some of them didn’t go quietly.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now