Posted by: Matt Kelley | 19 December 2008

Gongju’s Songsanri Tombs

gongju_3mounds
Gongju’s well-kept royal burial mounds turn gold in autumn.

During ancient Korea’s Three Kingdoms period, the culturally sophisticated Baekje Kingdom (18BCE-660) sought a new capital when its principal city near Seoul was sacked. The city of Gongju (then Ungjin) was chosen, and for 63 years its spectacular temples and palaces thrived until the city was destroyed by a Silla-Tang China coalition in 660.

Today, this town in South Chungcheong Province has several important cultural attractions that remind guests of Baekje’s glory, but often escape notice from travelers to Korea. And among the most interesting is the Songsan-ri Burial Mounds.

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Stairs leading up to tomb 4, which was excavated in 1927. Although this tomb had already been robbed before its excavation, gold, silver and gilt-bronze artifacts were recovered.

It’s believed that ten Baekje kings are buried in Gongju, although only seven have been discovered. To passers by, the tombs resemble large, gently sloping earthen mounds blanketed in neatly-trimmed grass.

The most important tomb is number 7, which belongs to King Muryeong (무령왕) and his wife, the queen. Baekje’s 25th king was born in 462 and reigned from 501 until his death in 523. According to the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), Muryeong, also called Sama, became king after his father was assassinated by a court official. A year later, he crushed a second rebellion by the same renegade.

gongju_crowns
The Geumjegwansik (금제관식) are a pair of two gold diadems worn by the king of Baekje. Cut from a gold plate just two millimeters thick, they were excavated from Muryeong’s tomb. They are designated National Treasure 154.

During Muryeong’s reign, the southwestern kingdom of Baekje was allied with its eastern rival Silla against the northern kingdom of Goguryeo. Furthermore, the king expanded contact with China and Japan and both countries’ historical records reference him. In fact, Japan’s emperor Akihito created controversy in 2001 when he told reporters,

“I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryeong of Baekje.”

Japanese historic texts say that Kammu’s mother was a descendant of Muryeong’s son. His remarks were the first time that a Japanese monarch publicly acknowledged there was Korean heritage in the Chrysanthemum throne’s imperial line.

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A pair of King Muryeong’s golden earrings, which are designated national treasures of Korea.

King Muryeong’s tomb was discovered by accident in 1971 while drainage pipes were being installed to protect two nearby tombs. It’s rare to find an intact Baekje tomb, yet Muryeong’s had not been opened since the king and queen were originally interred some 1,500 years earlier. Inside, archaeologists discovered 2,906 items. Of those, 12 have been designated National Treasures, and all can be seen at the Gongju National Museum. Baekje is often regarded as the most artistically sophisticated of the Three Kingdoms, and great cases in point are the distinctive royal crowns, jewelry, gilt bronze shoes and neck pillows found inside the tombs.

gongju_tomb
Is it the ghost of King Muryeong?! No, just a friend of mine in a recreated version of tomb no. 6.

Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for its preservation), the actual tomb was permanently closed. But the Korean government has made an excellent, albeit miniature duplicate.

The 3.14 meter high tomb extends 4.2 meters in the north-south direction and 2.72 meters east-west. Lined with textured black bricks (many featuring lotus motifs), the end of the long tunnel features a dome-like ceiling and paintings of fire-breathing dragons, tigers, peacocks, turtles and other auspicious creatures.

gongju_tourtomb
After the original tomb was permanently sealed for its preservation, a recreated tomb featuring informative exhibits was created for visitors.

The unusual wall mural in tomb 6 is probably the tomb’s most remarkable aspect, and it’s the only representative art of this kind in the world. Not surprisingly, the tomb complex is among South Korea’s future pitches to receive UNESCO World Heritage status.

map_gongju

The Songsan-ri Tombs and nearby museum aren’t Gongju’s only sites worth a visit. In future editions of Discovering Korea, we’ll explore more of what this former Baekje capital has to offer.

Getting There:
→ From Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, buses leave every 30-40 minutes from 06:00 to 21:00. The 2 hour 20 minute ride runs 6,900 to 10,100 won. From the Gongju Bus Terminal, take local bus #1 or #30. The ride takes approx. 15 minutes.

Admission is 1,500 won for adults. Open 09:00-18:00. Closed during the Chuseok and Seollal holidays.

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Responses

  1. Hi there,
    Just saw this posting about Gongju. Foreign visitors who don’t understand Korean but don’t mind the lack of translation may want to join the free local city bus tour which goes to a number of interesting sights around Gongju including its great museum. I was lucky enough to join one a few years ago. Just make reservations with the Gongju Tourist Information Centre – though you may need a translator for this!

    We visited the Natural History Museum at Gyeryeongsan ( more time needed to cover all its wonders!) and a pottery craft place where children could make their own pots ( at a price for postage when the clay dries and the pot is fired).

    Gapsa Temple is also worth a visit. So too the Fortress in Gongju itself. The programme changes according to the seasons – another programme, I noticed, included a pansori museum ( sorry to have missed that!)
    You need a full-day to enjoy the tour.
    Regards,
    Selene

  2. Hi Selene,

    I’ve been meaning to check out Gapsa Temple, as well as nearby Magoksa Temple. The latter is one of the few places to have escaped destruction at the hands of Japanese invaders in the late 16th century… it’s also where Korean independence hero Kim Gu took refuge after being sentenced to death by the Japanese colonial forces! Anyhow, thanks for the heads up!
    ~Matt


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