National Treasures Found at “Flying Horse” Tomb

Better known as the Flying Horse Tomb, the tombs in Cheonmachong are best known for the many artifacts, relics and Silla Dynasty treasures that were discovered when this tomb was excavated and then rebuilt.

According to local historians:

Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb) was probably the tomb of a king of the Silla Dynasty. The tomb is representative of wooden chamber tombs with stone mounds of the Silla period. Its circumference was 157 meters and 12.7 meters high. It is believed to date back to the fifth or sixth century.

The tomb was build by placing a wooden coffin and a wooden chest for funerary objects on the flat floor and building a wooden chamber over them. Boulders were then placed on top of the chamber and an earthen mound was built over the pile.

Over 11,500 artifacts were retrieved when the tomb was excavated. They include a gold crown and a pair of birch bark saddle flaps which were painted with a flying horse, thus giving the tomb its present name, Cheonmachong, or Flying Horse Tomb.

The Legend of Alyongjong

Another legend involves the birth of the wife of the first king of the Silla dynasty. It goes like this:

Alyong, the wife of Silla Dynasty’s founder and king, was born in this place. When an old woman went to a well to draw water in B.C. 69, she was very surprised by a dragon playing around the well, where a young baby was born of the dragon.

When the old woman raised and taught the baby, she became more intelligent and beautiful. So much so that she became the wife of the Silla Dynasty’s founder, King Bakhyeokgeose.

Thus marks the legend of Alyongjong, located adjacent to the Silla Tombs and not far from where the queen is likely to have been buried.

Trekking to the Silla Tombs

After seeing the birthplace of the Silla Dynasty at Najeong, the Silla Tombs were the final resting places for at least five kings of the Silla Dynasty, including the first king, King Bakhyeokgeosewang, Queen Aryeong (his wife), King Namhae (the second Silla king), King Yuri (the third Silla king), and King Pasa (the fifth Silla King).

As with King Sejong’s tomb, these are not your ordinary burial plots. These tombs were carved well into the Earth, the bodies were buried with many worldly possessions so that these kings had their possessions as they traveled into their next life (reincarnation).

Then the tombs were buried with (not necessarily in this order): layers of rocks, then silt, then more rocks, then soil, then fine layers of sand, all to enormous proportions that would ultimately form these heaping tombs (mounds of dirt) that would serve as the final resting places and at the same time, monuments to their Silla King. Any time a king or royalty died, this process would be repeated.

One thing to keep in mind is that these tombs have never been excavated and no archaeological digs have ever been performed on them, except for the Flying Horse tomb (see upcoming post). So no one really knows the treasures that were buried with these Silla kings. But as gold was an extravagant royalty during the Silla Dynasty, one can assume that plenty of gold artifacts and national treasures are hidden and yet to be revealed, leaving us to only guess at what remains beneath these Silla Tombs.

Legend Pervades Najeong Historic Site

Najeong was not much to look at because of the archaeological dig that had recently been held here and irritated many descendants of the Silla family. Our professor said that family members were upset because the research caused them to tear up the site and “they never put things back to the way they found them,” before the “historic dig” began.

To make matters worse, relics and historic artifacts found here were hauled off to national museums (they didn’t find much, according to local historians) and so much of the site is just land, dirt and maps at this point.

But regardless of the controversy, this site is historic because it is said to be the location of the “birth” of the first king of the Silla Dynastic period in Korea, following the Goryeo Dynasty, and lasting nearly 1,000 years before the emergence of the Joseon Dynasty, which closes out the dynastic period of Korea’s history.

According to Korean historians of the Na Jung site:

According to Samguksagi and Samgukusa, Bak Hyeokgeose, the founder king of Silla (57 B.C. ~ A.D. 935) was born here. One day in 69 B.C., according to a legend, Sobeol, chieftain of the village called Goheo, saw a white horse on its knees by a well. When he went to the well for a closer look, the horse suddenly disappeared. But he found a large egg on the spot where the horse had been. A baby came out of the egg. When he reached the age of 13, six chieftains in the area elected him to be their first king. They called their country Seorabeol, the ancient name of Silla.

Now according to Dr. Peterson, our resident historian and guide for our tour of Korea, the account lacks some details. The horse was a horse with gigantic wings, and with them the horse could fly, which is what happened to the horse when the egg appeared. The horse, according to legend, flew away, leaving this giant egg. But not just any egg. The egg appeared to be a bright, lustrous, iridescent egg – one that definitely is different from any other egg any one would have seen up to that point in time. And as the baby comes out of this egg, the people of the village are mystified by this baby. So much so that the elect him king of their village, and thus begins the Silla Dynasty for 1,000 years.

Najeong appears to be the site of this event and the birthplace (or hatching, depending on accounts) of this illustrious king of the Silla period. Archaeological digs have proven that artifacts found on the site date back to this time period and have helped historians pinpoint the timing of events such that they coincide with the accounts of that period and relics found here.

Visiting Yang Dong Village

One of the highlights of our trip to Korea was visiting Yang Dong Village near Gyeonju, in the Gyeongsangbuk Province of South Korea. The village hails from the Joseon Dynasty, when the Son family and the Lee family came to this area nearly 500 years ago as a celebrated part of the Joseon dynasty. Many of the families descendants still live and work in the village, maintaining homes and buildings, in addition to farming, schooling their children and guiding visitors through today’s village.

The village was recently named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique culture and customs still inherent in the village and the people here today. Yang Dong Village boasts over 50 homes and more than 150 buildings on the site housing their leadership, famous village temples, schools and other structures for village living. Many of these buildings are more than 200 years old and are still maintained by villagers here.

While visiting Yang Dong Village, we were able to meet with the Cheng Son, one of two leaders of Confucianism and the Yang Dong Village by lineage. “Cheng,” means to govern, and “Son” is the heritage of governing which is passed down from the patriarch of each family to the next generation.

Their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors were also leaders of their villages in Yang Dong and ruled as the Cheng Son, one of the 18 original followers/leaders of Confucianism. If the family did not have a son, then the father’s brother’s first son would be next in line for this patriarchal honor. It really is fascinating to see how they had all of the “what if’s” worked out, even 500+ years ago.

Yang Dong Village is home to numerous national treasures of Korea. With this in mind, and the addition of the village to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, the village is currently building a museum to welcome visitors, house many of their national treasures and begin to tell the story of the village.

This will help visitors see the highlights as they walk the rice patties, trek the trails up to the temple, follow the schoolchildren to their schoolyard, and walk to the homes of villagers who will share their stories, cultures and customs, including the wearing of traditional Han Bok clothing and the writing of calligraphy.

The video below illustrates the village of Yang Dong today, its people and their life and livelihood in 21st century Yang Dong Village. It amazes me how their customs and cultures have remained while the world around them has changed so dramatically.