“I suddenly found myself thinking about the death of King Seong of Baekje, who was beheaded 1500 years ago.”
This is how Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage director and survey team supervisor Kim Seong-bae described his experience on Sept. 7 as he looked back on the Wolseong Palace excavation site in Gyeongju — the capital of Korea’s Silla kingdom for a millennium.
The institute had just announced some astonishing news that day. While excavating a section of the western palace wall and a section near the former western gate site connected to that wall, the team had uncovered human remains in the inner ground layer.
This marked the second discovery of human remains, after previous sets were found in 2017. The owner was determined to be the victim of a human sacrifice offered by the people of Silla while building the palace.
Hearing the news, Kim said he thought of the head of King Seong, which might be buried somewhere in the Wolseong site.
So how exactly are these human remains in the Wolseong palace wall and the head of King Seong of Baekje connected?
The records found in the “Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms)” say only that King Seong heard word that Crown Prince Chang (later to become King Wideok of Baekje) had been stranded in an attempted strike against Gwansang Fortress (in Okcheon, North Chungcheong Province), which was occupied by Silla forces in 554. The king assembled a seasoned troop to rescue him, but ended up ambushed, captured, and slain by the Silla forces.
A more detailed account is found in the “Emperor Kinmei” chapter of the “Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan),” which has been the subject of controversy over possible distortions of history. It states that the captive King Seong was decapitated by a Silla servant named Godo, and that his head was subsequently buried in a pit.
Another account in the same source states that his body was returned to Baekje, but that his head was buried under the staircase at the northern government offices at Wolseong. It further says that the term “Dodang” was used to refer to those offices while the king was discussing state affairs with his retainers.
Seong’s beheading would lead to Silla and Baekje becoming mortal enemies. Was part of that due to the events described in the “Chronicles of Japan” and the humiliation of the king’s severed head being buried beneath the Wolseong Palace complex, where it would be trodden on by people for years and years to come?
Findings from the excavation suggest that the significance of the burial was by no means simple in a ritual and religious sense.
Korean scholars have suggested that the discovery of human remains within palace walls reflects the religious attitudes of the Silla people and the mindset of its leaders.
In ancient human history, it was a widespread practice for peoples to make human sacrifices under gates, buildings, and other engineered structures as a way of praying for the earth deities to grant safety and prosperity to the structure.
Rituals of human sacrifice in front of fortress walls — and gates in particular — were widespread among the ancient Celts of Europe and in the prehistoric Longshan culture and Shang Dynasty in China.
When the remains of a man and woman in their 50s were found during an excavation of Wolseong’s western palace wall in 2017, some speculated that they might have been evidence of the practice of human sacrifice, while others countered that they might instead represent a tomb or evidence of a massacre.
But additional excavations have turned up the remains of a woman adorned with accessories, a ritualistic vessel that appeared to have been used to pour libations, and even various animal remains with only their ribs bearing marks of cutting. This has led to a growing consensus that human sacrifices were indeed practiced.
Further evidence supporting that claim is the fact that none of the specific trappings of tombs could be found, while the remains were oriented to face in a specific direction.
In 1985, a Gyeongju historical site excavation team uncovered three sets of human remains while performing a test dig north of the western gate site. In 1990, the Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage unearthed a full 23 sets of remains.
As those discoveries have received renewed attention, it has become more apparent that they were evidence of human sacrifices.
Fascinatingly, the practice had largely disappeared with the emergence of state systems in the Common Era — only to resurface in Silla after the passage of around a millennium.
Researchers have been unable to provide a clear answer as to why the practice seemed to resurface so much later in Silla.
A more basic examination of the sacrificial practices seen with the victims raises some unsettling facts. It means that an incident of killing was performed in front of the Wolseong Palace walls in the Silla capital of Seorabeol (now Gyeongju) 1,700 years ago as a form of a sacred celebration.
As the monarchs of Silla and the royal family members belonging to the seonggol (sacred bone) and jingol (true bone) ranks had massive palace walls built around their Wolseong dwelling in the early to mid-fourth century, they performed rituals — observed by the masses — in which commoners and servants were slain as sacrifices at the broad palace gate sites where the walls would be raised.
In other words, the human sacrifices were a form of planned ritual meant to parade and embellish their authority.
Today, it might seem like a chilling tragedy, but the rituals were seen at the time as sacred state events, and both the institute and other scholars suggest that the victims were likely to have viewed their sacrifice as an honor. As evidence for that, they point to the fact that the excavated remains showed no signs of resistance and bore marks of rituals such as adornment with necklaces and the placement of straw and wooden covers over them.
At the site where the western palace wall is being excavated, sheets of paper have been placed with prints of the 2017 remains and the recently found female remains on the palace’s base layer, which was blackened due to a layer of rice straw burned in a reinforcement technique known as the “leaf mat method.”
Above the excavation site, the palace’s central structure could be seen, with large and long stones placed in a row with a layer of additional stones over top. Next to that central structure, there were marks of filling with an additional layer of soil to increase the wall’s width.
The grand walls measure over 10 meters in height and 40 meters in width, comparable dimensions to the Baekje-era Pungnap Earthen Fortification. Seeing them and the evidence of human remains inside, I could sense the great force and mysterious inner life of the Silla people as they went forth expanding their might under the leadership of their “maripgan” (monarch).
By Roh Hyung-suk, culture correspondent
Please direct comments or questions to [email@example.com]
ⓒ 한겨레신문사, 무단전재 및 재배포 금지
한겨레 주요 뉴스
해당 언론사로 연결됩니다.
- 예비역 김 병장의 수십년 내무반 악몽…‘군 PTSD 온다’
- 대장동 의혹 ‘키맨’은 누구?…유력 법조인은 왜 영입했을까
- 정부 ‘단계적 일상회복’ 가려는데…신규확진 3천명대
- 김여정 “종전선언 좋은 발상”…남북대화 물꼬 트이나
- 자문위 의견 뒤집는 ‘추가 접종’…미국 CDC, 이례적 권고
- 24~25일 세계기후행동의 날…한국 청소년 ‘시스템을 전복하라’
- 중국 중앙은행 “암호화폐 관련 거래 모두 불법”…비트코인 폭락
- 이낙연 “이제와 토건비리라니”…이재명 “공영개발 막은 건 국민의힘”
- “꿀잼” vs “식상”…넷플릭스 ‘오징어 게임’, 국내선 호불호 갈리는 이유
- 윤석열 “집이 없어 청약통장 못 만들어봤다” 실언, 내놓은 해명 보니