Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Golden Treasures: The Royal Tombs of Silla

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Gyeongju, the capital of the kingdoms of Old Silla (57 B.C.–676 A.D.) and Unified Silla (676–935), is dotted with impressive mounds of royal tombs. Their occupants range from kings, queens, and princes to relatives and nobility blessed into the inner circles of power. From the time of their construction, these tombs have stood as symbols of political authority and cultural grandeur. Some of the most prestigious tombs that have been excavated include Hwangnam-daechong, Geumgwan-chong (Tomb of Gold Crown), and Seobong-chong from the fifth century, and Geumryeong-chong (Tomb of Gold Bell) and Cheonma-chong (Tomb of Heavenly Horse) from the sixth century.

For millennia, Silla tombs have preserved hoards of precious ornaments buried within. Constructed of wood, sealed with clay, and covered with mounds of stone and earth, these tombs have a relatively impenetrable structure. Chief among the treasures are accessories of pure gold: crowns, caps, belts, earrings (43.49.13,14), necklaces, bracelets, rings, and decorative swords (gold hilt with oval pommel, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art). Besides gold, there are also numerous ornaments fashioned from silver, gilt bronze, crystal, glass, beads, and jade. The elegant jewels were placed on the deceased, literally decorating the body. At least some of the objects were designed not for actual wear but as burial goods. For example, the magnificent gold crowns are very thin and fragile, with excessive (though attractive) trimmings. Similarly, gold earrings (43.49.5,6), particularly ones with the fat and hollow top ring, are too impractical to be worn. Yet, practicality aside, the extraordinary beauty and sophisticated craftsmanship of these personal ornaments attest to the esteem conferred upon these sumptuous riches by both patron and artisan.

Beyond objects of splendor, gold ornaments from Silla tombs also served as status symbols. Whereas gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings were appropriate accessories for both royalty and nobility, gold crowns and belts were reserved for the royal family. Furthermore, the objects' quality and design reflected the social and political rank of the deceased, so that a king's cache is indisputably more dazzling and complex than those of a royal kin or an aristocratic leader. To some degree, burial objects were also gender-coded. Decorative swords, for example, have been found only in the tombs of males. In general, however, many jewels, including elaborate earrings and necklaces, were made for members of both sexes.

The Silla elite's desire for gold ornaments originally arose from contacts with various kingdoms of China and with the nomadic cultures of the northeast. Gold, the raw material, initially was imported but eventually must have been produced within the Silla territories to satisfy the huge demand. Scythian gold ornaments make an intriguing and visually convincing precursor to Silla gold—witness the use of the ubiquitous tree-branch motif on their respective gold crowns. Exotic objects made in Central Asia and further west to the Mediterranean have been found in several Silla tombs, testimony to the vibrant international exchanges of the time. Close similarities between the gold ornaments and crystal and jade necklaces of Silla and Japan illustrate the deep ties shared by the elites of the two neighboring kingdoms and the eastern flow of artisans and goods.

The Silla practice of building large mound-tombs and interring scores of gold ornaments gradually declined following the official adoption of Buddhism as the state religion in 528. Instead, cremation became the standard postmortem practice. Accordingly, urns replaced jewelry as the main burial accoutrement. By the end of the sixth century, opulent ritual accessories made of gold and other precious metals were destined for Buddhist temples rather than royal tombs.

Soyoung Lee
Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Crown, Three Kingdoms period, Silla kingdom (57 B.C.–668 A.D.), 5th–6th century
Gilt bronze; h. 8 1/8 in. (20.6 cm)
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
Gold Hilt with Oval Pommel, Three Kingdoms period, Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.–668 A.D.), 5th–6th century
Gold; L. 5 3/8 in. (13.8 cm), Diam. of pommel 2 1/4 in. (5.8 cm)
Treasure no. 776
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

Two intertwined dragons, set in relief, decorate the body of this gold hilt. Similarly, the heads of two dragons–with jade for eyes–fill the opening of the oval pommel. This motif reflects Central Asian and Siberian influences on Silla art, particularly visible in gold ornaments. Most swords or the hilt and pommel of swords from Silla tombs are embellished in gold or silver, and many are decorated with such powerful images as dragons and phoenixes.

Decorative swords like this piece were probably not used as actual weapons but rather were status symbols for the deceased, much like gold crowns, gold jewelry, and other extravagant personal ornaments. But unlike most other accessories, decorative swords were found almost exclusively in tombs of males. Often they were placed on the left side, near the waist, of the deceased's body.