10 Must-see Artifacts at the Gyeongju National Museum

Travel back to the Silla era with the items defining the Gyeongju National Museum

Gyeongju National Museum by Gyeongju National MuseumGyeongju National Museum

Silla and the Gyeongju National Museum

The Gyeongju area served as the royal capital of Silla for nearly a thousand years (57 BCE-935 CE) and is home to a wealth of historical and cultural heritage―both above and under the ground―spanning from prehistoric times to the Joseon period. The Gyeongju National Museum is located in the heart of the Gyeongju Historic Area. These ten items from the Gyeongju National Museum provide a glimpse into the history and culture of Silla, which took part in active interchanges with other countries of the time and was known variously as a kingdom of gold or kingdom of Buddhism.    

Gold Crown (Silla, 5th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

1. Gold Crown

In the middle of the 4th century, Silla was governed by a ruler known as the Maripgan. The Maripgan and his family demonstrated their authority with ornaments made of gold, silver, and gilt-bronze. A golden crown was the most important of these ornaments. The Gold Crown excavated from the Cheonmachong Tomb is the most complete and splendid example among Silla’s surviving golden crowns.

Learn more about the golden artifacts of Silla, the golden kingdom here.   

Divine Bell of King Seongdeok (Unified Silla, 771) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

2. Divine Bell of King Seongdeok

The first artifact you see when you come through the main gate of the museum is the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok. King Gyeongdeok of Silla attempted to make a large bell with 120,000 geun of copper as a prayer for his deceased father King Seongdeok. King Hyegong, the son of King Gyeongdeok, actually completed a large bell on December 14, 771, the seventh year of his reign. Its balanced form, elaborate decoration, and imposing low-pitched tone set the bell among the masterpieces of Silla art.    

Divine Bell of King Seongdeok (Unified Silla, 771) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

sound pipe is a large flute-shaped hollow tube. This unique feature of Silla bells allows the sound from the interior of a bell to escape outward. A sound pipe also absorbs high frequency sounds, reducing conflicting tones. A bell loop is used to suspend a bell. They are known as a ‘dragon-shaped bell loop’ when a dragon’s head is sculpted on the surface. The powerful dragon sculpture shows a fine sense of balance and elaborate and sophisticated details. 

Divine Bell of King Seongdeok (Unified Silla, 771) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

These images of apsaras on the bell of King Seongdeok the Great reflect the aesthetics of Silla. The two apsaras are kneeling on lotus pedestals and holding up incense burners while medallion flowers bloom like clouds around the coattails of their divine garments fluttering towards the sky. The elaborate and elegant crafting of the sculpture captivates its viewers. 

Bhaisajyaguru Buddha (Unified Silla, 8th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

3. Bhaisajyaguru Buddha

This statue was originally installed in Baengnyulsa Temple on Mt. Sogeumgangsan. This temple is associated with the legend of Ichadon, a renowned martyr who encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism in Silla. The height of the statue is similar to that of an adult man. Although both hands are missing, the position of the arms indicates that it was intended to represent Bhaisajyaguru Buddha. The Amitabha and Vairocana Buddha images at Bulguksa Temple and this Bhaisajyaguru image are considered the best examples of Buddhist gilt bronze sculpture from the Unified Silla period.    

Maitreya Buddha Triad (Silla, 7th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

4. Maitreya Buddha Triad

This Maitreya Buddha triad is also known as the “Child Buddhas” for the innocent smiles on the flanking bodhisattvas. The main Buddha here is unique as the only Buddha statue from the Three Kingdoms Period to be seated in a chair. This triad was transferred from a stone chamber in Jangchanggol Valley on the northern slope of Mt. Namsan in Gyeongju. Although made from hard granite, it is a beautiful set of Buddhist sculptures that conveys warmth as if it were alive and breathing.    

Inner Sarira Reliquary (Unified Silla, a.682) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

5. Sarira Reliquary

Gameunsa Temple was built in 682 CE on orders from King Sinmun as he sought to commemorate his father King Munmu. There are two large-scale three-story stone pagodas remaining at the temple site. Sarira reliquaries were found in both of these pagodas. This sarira reliquary set was excavated from the west pagoda. It consists of a cuboid outer chest, a house-shaped case, and a crystal bottle.    

Waist-drum(Inner Sarira Reliquary) (Unified Silla, a.682) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

The bottom of the house-shaped case was decorated with various images of Buddhist deities. Heavenly beings playing musical instruments were set along the four corners of the base plate. 

Flute(Inner Sarira Reliquary) (Unified Silla, a.682) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

The reliquaries found at the temple site attest to the high standard of metal craftwork technology during the Unified Silla Period. Learn more about the Gameunsa Temple site here.    

Roof-end Tile with Human Face (Silla, 7th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

6. Roof-end Tile with Human Face Design

A roof-end tile is a special tile set at the ends of a roof. The design on this example features a broad smile on a shy-looking face. It is believed to have been added in an effort to ward off evil spirits. This tile was excavated from the Yeongmyosa Temple site, which was built during the reign of Queen Seondeok. In 1972, a Japanese citizen named Danaka Toshinobu donated it to the Gyeongju National Museum.

Ridge-end Ornament Tile (Silla, 7th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

7. Curved Ridge-end Roof Tile

Called either mangsae or chimi in Korean, ridge-end tiles are placed at each end of a central roof ridge. The ridge-end tile seen here was restored from fragments found near the site of the lecture hall in the Hwangnyongsa Temple complex. It is the largest existing curved ridge-end roof tile in Korea. The grandeur of Hwangnyongsa Temple can be imagined based on this tile. 

Learn more about Silla Buddhist art here.    

Long-necked Jar with Figurines (Silla, 5th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

8. Long-necked Jar with Clay Figurines

Silla people often decorated earthenware with clay figurines of people and animals or with various patterns. The neck and shoulders of this jar are adorned with a variety of clay figurines. They offer tremendous insight into the Silla spiritual world and people’s vision of life in harmony with nature.    

Ornamental Dagger Sheath (Silla, 5th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

9. Ornamental Dagger Sheath

This splendid decorative dagger sheath combining precious stones with gold is believed to have been created somewhere between Central Asia and the Black Sea coast and then transported to Silla. It bears a striking similarity to an example excavated from Borovoe in Kazakhstan. It indicates how Silla interacted with far-distant regions.    

Snuffers (Unified Silla(668~935)) by unknownGyeongju National Museum

10. Gilt-bronze Wick Trimmers

These gilt-bronze wick trimmers found in Wolji Pond were used for trimming lamp wicks. The handles were made in the curved shape of vines, and the front is also decorated with elaborate vine engravings. The metalwork shows a very stylish and intricate design. These types of trimmers have also found at the Shōsōin treasure house in Nara, indicating the active cultural exchange between Silla and Japan.

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