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Bone-chilling architecture of Silla monarchy

한겨레 입력 2021. 09. 25. 09:56

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Human remains recently discovered at a Silla-era palace in Gyeongju have reignited interest in how human sacrifice was used to embellish the authority of rulers in the historic kingdom
Researcher Jang Ki-myeong, points to where remains were found on Sept. 7 at the excavation site of Wolseong Palace’s western wall. Atop the base soil, blackened using the “leaf mat method” in which a layer of rice straw was burned atop the basal layer, a large piece of paper demarks where human remains of a man and woman were found in 2017, and where the remains of a woman were recently found. 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. (provided by Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

“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?

Remains of a woman who was a victim of human sacrifice found in the base soil layer of the western palace wall at the Wolseong site (provided by Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

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.

Remains of a man and woman in their 50s found beneath the Wolseong Palace’s western wall in the base dirt. Northeast of where their bodies were found, just 50 centimeters away, was where remains of a woman in her 20s were recently unearthed. All remains have been judged to be victims of human sacrifices meant to wish for the safety of the fortress walls. (provided by Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

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.

Human remains found by Gyeongju historical site excavation team performing a test dig north of the western gate site. These remains were found in proximity to the human remains unearthed in 2017 and this year. (provided by Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

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.

Taken on Sept. 7, this photo shows the basal soil layer blackened in the “leaf mat method” of engineering in which a layer of rice straw was burned on it, and two sheets of paper indicating where human remains were found in 2017 and this year. 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. (provided by Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

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 [english@hani.co.kr]

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