Silla, the Golden Kingdom of Korea

Gyeongju National Museum

Silla began to establish itself as an ancient state in the mid-4th century through its rulers, which were titled Maripgan. Huge tombs that remain in downtown Gyeongju belong to the kings, queens and aristocrats of the Maripgan-ruled Silla. The Maripgan and his clans showed off their status by wearing a gold crown and various ornaments made of splendidly crafted gold, silver and gilt bronze. Gold was a symbol of supreme power.

Maripgan, the Ruler of Silla
It is estimated that Silla began to use gold products from the mid-4th century. During that time, the Kim clan started to inherit the throne and the title of the king changed from Isageum to Maripgan. Maripgan means the supreme leader, which is a combination of the word “gan,” the equivalent of khan, a common Northeast Asian term for a ruler, and the word, “marip,” referring to a supreme status. The title was first adopted by Silla’s 17th king, Naemul Maripgan (r. 356-402), and continued to be used until it was replaced by King Jijeung (r. 500-514) with the Chinese-style title of “wang” (王). During that period, Silla aggressively sought to forge relations with other countries by, for example, dispatching envoys to the Chinese kingdom of Former Qin (315-394) with the help of Goguryeo. Based on internal and external development, Silla made exchanges with nomadic tribes in northern China, such as the Xianbei, which brought cultural prosperity to the kingdom.
Huge Tombs 
With the emergence of Maripgan rulers, huge tombs of unprecedented size began to appear in the central area of Gyeongju. One is as large as 80 meters in diameter and over 20 meters in height, resembling a small mountain peak from a distance. To construct a tomb, flat ground was dug up in a rectangular formation and a wooden chamber was installed on the inside, which was walled with stone slabs and covered on the outside in an earth mound. Around the tomb stood piles of stones to prevent the soil from collapsing. The internal structure of the graves underwent changes in design over time. First, the main coffin for the deceased and a secondary one for burial goods were originally installed in separate spaces, but later, the two were placed alongside each other or the main coffin itself contained a compartment for burial goods. Extant Silla-era gold artifacts were excavated from these graves, exemplifying the Silla ruling class’ special attachment to gold as well as the symbolism and significance placed on the metal. 
Gold Crowns
Silla crowns are classified into four categories, according to their material: gold, gilt bronze, silver, and bronze. Among them, silver and bronze crowns appeared only in the early and late Silla period, respectively, and therefore, gold and gilt-bronze crowns are more representative of the Silla crown in general. To date, a total of six gold crowns have been discovered. Five crowns were excavated from the following five ancient tombs in Gyeongju: the north mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam), Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb), Seobongchong (Auspicious Phoenix Tomb), Geumnyeongchong (Gold Bell Tomb), and Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb). Gold crowns are estimated to have been produced between the late 5th century and the early 6th century, yet during this period, there were only four kings, which would indicate that gold crowns were worn not only by kings, but also queens or other royal family members. In fact, the occupant of the north mound of Hwangnam Daechong, where a gold crown was unearthed, was a woman, while that of Geumnyeongchong was a young boy.  

This gold crown was the first of its kind to be discovered, which is why the tomb where it was found was named Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb). It has the typical form of a Silla gold crown, with two curved branch-shaped ornaments in the back and three straight branch-shaped ornaments at the front and sides of the headband. The ornaments were fixed to the headband with rivets. The ornaments on the front and sides feature three tiers of arms stretching out from the stem, bent at right angles. A pair of long pendants hangs from the headband, and it is thought that the two ends of the headband were tied together with another piece of material.

This is a typical gold crown of Silla, which bears a strong resemblance to the crown from Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb). The main difference is that the opposing branch-shaped ornaments at the front of this crown have four tiers of arms (instead of three), and the branches are relatively shorter. The materials were used very effectively to make the opposing branch-shaped ornaments of this gold crown. The crown is also decorated with numerous gold spangles and curved pieces of jade. The elaborate and splendid design of this gold crown matches the form common to the latter years of the Silla Period.

This simple gold crown features three branch-shaped ornaments attached to a short-rimmed headband. It appears that the band used to be shorter, because it has a patchwork extension at the back, made from a piece of gold plate. The ornaments have only one tier of the splitbranch design. Of the six gold crowns of Silla that have so far been discovered, this one represents the oldest form of the original type, featuring ornaments that closely resemble actual tree branches.

Caps 
The cap, along with the gold crown, is an important accessory that represents the wearer’s social rank. It was made of gold, silver, gilt-bronze or birch-tree bark, and gold caps appear to have been reserved for the king. The cap is generally conical in shape, with angled tops in some exceptions. The bottom rim has punctured holes at a close interval to attach cloth, which then hung down and was tied at both ends. The typical artifacts of official caps were those from the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam), Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb), and Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb). Among them, the cap from the south mound of Hwangnam Deachong was made of silver, with gilt-bronze plates of openwork dragon patterns on the front and partial gold plating, which imbues a yellow-gold glitter. The caps from Geumgwanchong and Cheonmachong were made with several bound plates of splendid openwork patterns. These caps demonstrate the essence of Silla metal craftsmanship.

The inner mould of this gold cap was forged from organic matter and then covered with gold plate in the shape of a cone. Today, only the gold plate remains intact. A number of thin gold plates were connected to decorate the cone, with an opening across the frontal face, to be covered by a pentagonal plate where other decorations were affixed. Different openwork patterns and designs were carved into the gold plates to let the inner organic mould show through. This piece is one of two excavated from Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb) in Gyeongju that are representative of cone-shaped caps fully decorated with gold.

This silver cap consists of a cone that is shaped from a single piece of silver plate, with a pentagonal gilt-bronze plate attached to its face. The cone, which is decorated with metal flakes, is just big enough to cover the crown of the head, and it was held in place with a string tied under the jaw. The pentagonal plate features a sophisticated design of dragons, and it forms a pocket against the cone, where additional ornaments could be inserted. A similar cap made entirely of gilt-bronze was excavated from the Southern Peak of Hwangnamdaechong (the Great Tomb at Hwangnam), and these two artifacts now serve as the models for cone-shaped caps, which were very popular in Silla.

Diadem Ornament
Silla people seem to have enjoyed decorating their heads with feather or wing-shaped patterns. The diadem ornament of Silla is shaped into a bird flying with fully extended wings. Artifacts from earlier periods were attached on the front of the cap, but after the 6th century, it appears to have been used as a separate item of adornment as its size increased.  

Crown ornaments such as this were typically wedged into the pentagonal pocket on the front side of cone-shaped crowns. This particular crown ornament, consisting of a front plate and two wings, resembles a powerful bird. The upper part of the plate and the two wings are engraved with an abstract dragon design that looks like vines. At the front, round metal flakes hang close to the surface, except where the cone is attached. But the metal flakes were only hung from the top of the ornaments, so they did not touch the cone.

This crown ornament from Cheonmachong is shaped like the wings of a bird and looks very much like the relic excavated from Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb). On the front plate is an engraved dragon design, showing both sides of the wings. In fact, the design is somewhat distorted and asymmetrical, taking on a form resembling vines, and is much more abstract than the relic from the Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb). Round metal flakes were hung only in the front, and iron nails were found in the area where the ornament would be attached to the cone.

This crown ornament has a very unique form, combining the wings of a bird with those of a butterfly. This symmetrical shape is made from a single sheet of gold plate, and the round metal flakes were hung using a sewing method and gold thread.

Crown Pendants
This is a decorative piece attached around the headband of the gold or gilt-bronze crown to maximize its splendor. It commonly features multiple ornaments connected in a vertically elongated spiral. The shape of this pendant is similar to that of earrings but differentiated by its length or place of excavation. 

Pendants like this were generally hung from a crown for ornamental purposes. They are shaped like earrings, but longer. The knots decorating the side were made by tightly wrapping and winding thin gold thread around thicker gold thread in vertical loops. Then, tiny hooks were made by extricating short segments of wire from the knots to form perpendicular crosses, and spangles were hung from the hooks. Trumpet-shaped ornaments dangle from the bottom of the pendants, with small glass beads hooked into place right above them. These pendants are the oldest gold accessories of Silla that have been found to date.

The pendants were made by linking gold beads decorated with metal flakes. Their original form cannot be fully restored because the beads were scattered after burial in the tomb. Beads made of precious metals were often used in necklaces, and it is noteworthy that they were used to make pendants. A curved jade piece was hung at the bottom of the pendants. It was originally thought that pendants usually came without hook attachments. However, based on the excavation of these pendants, it now seems highly likely that they formed a set with the thick hollow earrings found.

Earrings 
Excavation work of large Silla tombs invariably yields a great number of gold earrings without exception, which is unprecedented elsewhere. Silla earrings are highly elaborate and resplendent, indicating the Silla people’s aesthetic sense and advanced metalwork craftsmanship. The earrings came in various shapes and are generally classified into two types, according to the thickness of their central ring: one with a thick hollow ring and the other with a thin solid ring. Earrings with a thick hollow ring generally adhere to a basic design, while those with a thin solid ring took different shapes. The earrings excavated from Tomb No. 14 in Hwango-ri and the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam) are relatively small and simple, while those from Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb), Seobongchong (Auspicious Phoenix Tomb), and Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) are highly sophisticated and resplendent, including some elongated artifacts. This suggests that gold earrings of Silla have evolved from simple to elaborate ones. Earrings of the 6th century, in particular, were splendidly decorated by attaching hundreds of gold grains or inserting blue or red jade pieces.

These earrings feature a single small ring, with a long central ornament and a short accessory ornament attached. The shorter accessory ornaments have the typical shape of most small-ring earrings from Silla. The longer central ornament comprises thin lengths of gold chain, pieces of gold thread, and various decorative attachments, including orbs formed from small gold rings and glass beads, gold spangles shaped like the nib of a pen, and heart-shaped trinkets. The combination of these various shapes and forms creates the highest form of elaborate beauty. Originally, the empty space between the heartshaped attachments and the chains was filled by some unknown material, but its original nature cannot be confirmed.

A large number of gold earrings were found in the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam). Among them, earrings with thin loops can be classified into two types: those decorated with hollow beads and those with ball-shaped ornaments. They are relatively small and simple in design.

A large number of gold earrings were found in the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam). Among them, earrings with thin loops can be classified into two types: those decorated with hollow beads and those with ball-shaped ornaments. They are relatively small and simple in design.

This is an elaborate type of earrings found in the east of the wooden chamber. The earrings have two spangles for decoration, one of which was attached on its top and bottom with heart-shaped hanging ornaments using gold thread.

This is a magnificent pair of earrings unearthed from the upper part of the wooden chamber in the southeastern corner. The 2 cm-wide main loop is perforated at the connecting part. The long string attached beneath the connecting loop is decorated with a pen-tip-shaped spangle, and the short string is attached with a heart-shaped spangle.

This earring is comprised of a thick main loop attached to a thin oval loop with spangle ornaments draping from it.

For the central decoration of earrings, a flattened gold plate is rolled into a round shape and inserted along with green glass beads. A heart-shaped spangle was attached at the bottom of the centerpiece decoration. Overall, these earrings are simple in structure, but the glass beads in between enhance the decorative effect.

Earrings unearthed from Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) were found inside and around the coffin, inside the wooden chamber, and in the burial chest. The earring with heart-shaped drops was worn by the occupant of the tomb, and similar earrings were found in Seobongchong (Auspicious Phoenix Tomb) and the joint burial tomb in Bomun-dong. These earrings are characterized by the pointed spangles with gold granules and embossed band attached on its surface. By the early 6th century, earrings gradually increased in their sophistication.

Earrings unearthed from Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) were found inside and around the coffin, inside the wooden chamber, and in the burial chest. The earring with heart-shaped drops was worn by the occupant of the tomb, and similar earrings were found in Seobongchong (Auspicious Phoenix Tomb) and the joint burial tomb in Bomun-dong. These earrings are characterized by the pointed spangles with gold granules and embossed band attached on its surface. By the early 6th century, earrings gradually increased in their sophistication.

These earrings were unearthed from a wooden chamber tomb with a stone mound from the early Silla period. Compared to similar artifacts from Silla, these are relatively small and simple. The center loops were attached to dangling loops, connected underneath with the centerpiece decorations.

Necklaces
The necklaces unearthed from Silla tombs were mainly made by threading dark blue glass beads in various sizes. Among them, gold necklaces are excavated from tombs with large mounds estimated to have belonged to members of the royal family. Some of them were made all the more opulent with the use of such adornments as comma-shaped jade, gold beads, and hanging ornaments. 
Chest Pendants
Some of them were made all the more opulent with the use of such adornments as comma-shaped jade, gold beads, and hanging ornaments. Unlike the necklaces worn over the chest, chest pendants were worn over the chest and the back. As they were mostly uncovered from the large wooden chamber tombs with a stone mound, they are estimated to have served to represent the social status of the occupant of the tumulus. They are comprised of main ornaments hanging over the chest and two strands of beads smaller than the frontal ones draped on the back. Hanging ornaments are also attached to the rectangular gold accessories and gold beads, enhancing their decorative value. 

This is the early version of the chest pendants with seven interwoven strands of blue glass beads and a large, green comma-shaped jade hung at the bottom. The gold rectangular ornaments inserted in between serve to prevent the bead-strands from getting tangled with each other.

This chestlace was found on the chest area of the occupant of a tomb in Cheonmachong. The central part was hung in a U-shape around the chest, with the two ends thrown back over the shoulders. The round blue jade pieces and hollow gold beads were linked into six strands, which were then braided. Cuboid gold ornaments were inserted to divide the central part into five strands and the ends into three strands. For additional decoration, one curved jasperbased jade piece was hung in the center and from each end. Chestlaces like this one were popular as symbolic burial objects for members of Silla’s ruling class.

Rings 
Tombs where gold and silver accessories were uncovered were often also accompanied by a varying number of rings, which are sometimes worn on the fingers of the tomb occupants but mostly found in the burial chests or on the top of wooden chambers of the tombs. Some were produced by rolling and bending gold plates; others were decorated by inserting glass jade pieces. As with the excavated artifacts from the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam), there are extravagant rings with wide, petal-shaped tops and inside decorations with gold granules and blue glass jade pieces. 

The gold rings unearthed from Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb) are classified into three types: the first type was made with a wide rhombus top and a notched band affixed to decorate its center; the second type was made with a rhombus top without any notable decoration; and the third type features an even ring-width with an engraved grid pattern, being relatively thin compared to other types.

The excavation of the north mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam) unearthed 19 gold rings. The occupant of the tomb was wearing three rings on the right hand and two on the left. The rings can be classified into two types: those with a plain surface and the top widened into a rhombus shape; and those with a grid pattern on their surface.

The excavation of the north mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam) unearthed 19 gold rings. The occupant of the tomb was wearing three rings on the right hand and two on the left. The rings can be classified into two types: those with a plain surface and the top widened into a rhombus shape; and those with a grid pattern on their surface.

Excavation of the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam) unearthed 18 gold rings, all of which were from the burial chest or the upper part of the wooden chamber. The top of these rings were made into rhombus shapes, and decorated with petal-shaped gold granules with small glass beads inserted in between. These rings, along with the gold bells unearthed with them, are known to be from the earliest era of Silla among all Silla gold-craft products.

Belts
Silla belts are characterized by long hanging ornaments on gold and silver belts, a characteristic that cannot be found in their counterparts from the Jin dynasty or the Xianbei dynasty in China. This custom is estimated to have originated from the influence of the northern nomadic tribes, among which it was customary to hang favored everyday objects from belts. The end of hanging ornaments are decorated with various objects such as a perfume pouch, a medicine bottle, fish, a whetstone, tongs, a comma-shaped jade piece, or a hand knife. These are deemed to symbolize the diverse responsibilities of the king or the priest: the medicine bottle is linked to the curing of diseases; comma-shaped jade to life; fish to food or fertility; and whetstone and tongs to the production of ironware. By the mid-6th century when gold products began to disappear from Silla tombs, the traditional form of openwork tri-leaf design gave its way to new belt ornaments. Referred to as “Nuam-ri type belt with pendant ornament,” these belts were uncovered from tombs of a relatively smaller scale and comprised of simple components such as a belt-hook, belt plaques, and belt-end ornaments. 

Belt ornament of Silla consisted of two parts: one part for decorating the surface of a belt, and the other part for hanging from the belt. The rectangular surface decoration is lavishly adorned with heart-shaped attachments, tiny metal flakes, and intricate openwork of three-leaf designs originating from vine designs. Many other items were typically hung from this ornament, including bottles of medicine or perfume to ward off disease, metal fish or dragon pendants symbolizing abundance and immortality, curved jade pieces, and whetstone caps.

These items have the typical form of Silla belt decorations, with a surface ornament and another attachment for hanging accessories. The horizontal surface is decorated with openwork in three-leaf designs and metal flakes attached to the plate that links with the buckle. The pieces hung from the waistband include: an ornamental cap with long hexahedronal attachments; curved jade pieces; a cylindrical ornamental cap; glass beads; tweezers; a small blade with dragon designs; a pouch for incense or medicines; and metal fish pendants. The long hexahedron covered with gold plates was shaped to resemble a whetstone.

As only the heels of these shoes remain, this pair of shoes has a similar shape to the gilt-bronze shoes of Goguryeo, which were fixed with square-headed nails on the upper part of their soles. Over 33 quadrangular pyramid-shaped nails are presumed to have been fixed on the soles.

Both sides of the shoes are decorated with crisscrossed letter T designs in openwork, with hanging ornaments attached sparsely. The insides of the shoes show traces of having wrapped red silk cloth around linen.

This is a typical pair of Silla gilt-bronze shoes, which have traces of cloth having been attached to the inside. Considering that they were unearthed around the feet of the occupant of the tomb, these shoes are presumed to have been worn on the feet of the deceased.

Vessels 
The burial chest excavated from the wooden chamber tomb with a stone mound contained precious goods from abroad along with various burial objects including gold, silver, and jewelry. Gold and gilt-bronze vessels were also found in large quantities in the chest. In 966, the Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi mentioned, “The people of Silla use gold vessels to serve meals.” This implies that Silla people used vessels made of precious metal including gold instead of earthenware. These metal vessels made of gold or silver were mainly uncovered from tombs belonging to kings and royal family members of Silla. In some cases, these vessels were found neatly stacked in the burial chest, which was laid at the head of the deceased. Royal tombs contained substantial quantities of buried gold vessels, with a wide variety of vessels, ranging from mounted plates, lidded bowls, bowls, to Buddhist monks’ bowls. 

This gold mounted cup bears a great resemblance to other cups made out of earth. The cup, which does not have a separate lid, was made by beating gold plates into the desired shape. The edge of the mouth bends outwards along the rim, and seven gold spangles dangle from the rim. To form the base, two long, thin pieces of gold plate, each with five square holes, were curled into a circle and attached to one another with another folded piece of gold plate, creating two lines of embossed belt. A U-shaped rim is attached separately at the bottom. The cup and the base were connected by protrusions on the top of the base, which fit into holes on the bottom of the cup.

Three similar sets of silver bowls with lids were excavated from the Southern Peak of Hwangnamdaechong (the Great Tomb at Hwangnam), stacked on top of one another. Both the bowl and the lid were cast from silver plates. The brim of the lid is bent slightly outwards, and at
the top, there is a knob attached with a round hook, in the shape of a three-tipped leaf. The basin of the bowl is flat at the bottom, with the sides curving up to an edge that is again bent slightly outwards along the rim. Only the knob and the mouth of the bowl were gold-plated, presumably for decoration.

These dippers have very unique forms, with a ladle attached to a curvy handle. Both the ladle and the handlewere cast from a single sheet of silver plate. To form the handle, the flat plate was curved into a U-shaped channel, in order to prevent bending, and a hook was fixed to the back using a rivet. The edge of the ladle was folded backwards to dull the sharpness. The unusual shape indicates that it was likely used for special ceremonies rather than for everyday purposes.

Long Swords 
The long swords excavated from the tomb with a large mound are usually decorated with gold and silver, and the hilts were adorned with symbolic designs such as a phoenix, three ring-pommels, and tri-leaf design. These ornamental swords are presumed to have been used as prestige goods to display the status of the owner, similar to gold and silver crafted goods including gold crowns, earrings, and belts. In particular, the long sword found nearby the deceased signifies the military rank of the owner in life, and seems to have been buried alongside the owner in the hope to convey his prestige into the afterlife. 

The central piece of this metal forearm shield was used to protect the arm during battle. The shield is considerably wider at the elbow than at the wrist, and the central line is embossed with flower bud designs. To make the bracelet that wraps around the wrist, two curved metal rectangles are connected to the central piece with hinges, forming an open cylinder. These two smaller pieces each have three hooks at the open end, where string or thread would be tied to hold the shield in place. Forearm shields like this were a standard part of armor, and similar pieces have been found in gilt-bronze, silver, and iron.

This ornamental dagger sheath was excavated from tomb No.14 in Gyerim-ro, Gyeongju, which is a relatively small wooden chamber with a stone mound. At one time, there was a wooden attachment to the knobbed-handle and sheath, but it has rotted away. The handle and sheath are entirely wrapped with thin gold plates, with smaller pieces of gold plate attached to the surface in the shapes of waves, leaves, circles, ovals, and pinwheels. These attachments are further decorated with red garnets, and pieces of blue glass. The confluence of the geometric design of the colorful gemstones, and the luminous hue of the gold plates conveys a look that is both splendid and luxurious. Recently, it was revealed that an iron dagger was still inside the sheath. It is thought that this dagger was manufactured in the area around the Black Sea or in Central Asia, so this is an important object for showing the cultural exchange of Silla.

Into the New Era 
The gold culture of Silla was limited to Gyeongju at first and spread widely to the periphery of the kingdom at the time of construction for the south mound of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam). Entering the 6th century, Silla underwent drastic social changes such as strengthened central governance over peripheral regions and adoption of Buddhism. As a result, tombs decreased in scale and the production of burial objects including gold accessories also plunged following changes in funerary practices. Sumptuous metalcraft goods began to be used in life, as opposed to being reserved for the grave. In particular, the prevalence of Buddhism led Silla artisans to produce statues of the Buddha, Buddhist offering vessels, and Sarira reliquaries ornaments. As such, the craftsmanship of Silla artisans was subsequently applied to the offering goods buried under the wooden pagoda in the Hwangnyongsa Temple Site, the Sarira container in the stone pagoda at Gameunsa Temple and the brick pagoda at Songnimsa Temple. 
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