the tumuli burial mounds of gyeongju


One of the cities in South Korea that is lauded as the most important for seeing archaeological artifacts is the city of Gyeongju. This city of almost 300,000 located in the southeastern part of the country is best known for being the capital of the Silla Kingdom [or Dynasty] from the mid-first century B.C.E. to the mid-tenth century C.E. It has been called “the museum without walls,” the “roofless museum,” and the “museum without a roof” depending on what source you read.

The Silla Kingdom was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and is in fact one of the world’s longest sustained dynasties. Due to this glorious past, the city of Gyeongju was designated as a UNESCO site under the general name of the “Gyeongju Historic Areas.” Given that many sites can be found all over the town, this designation seems fitting.

A word of caution. Don’t fall into the trap of being enchanted by the stories of the town as described in most travel literature. The modern city of Gyeongju reminded me of a gritty and crowded town right out of “Total Recall.” Neon love hotels are everywhere, the sidewalks are crowded with locals selling goods from their local farms, and there is a decided lack of restaurants and cafes. Good luck finding a place to eat: you may be stuck with Pizza Hut, KFC, or you could sit at the “outdoor cafe” seating in front of one of the local 7-11s. If you are going to visit Gyeongju your two options are to stay in town and navigate the streets for which there seem to be no good map or stay at a very expensive resort hotel outside of town.

All of this aside, the one important and quite impressive feature scattered about the town are the Silla Kingdom burial mounds, known as the “tumuli.” Gyeongju boasts about two dozen Silla Kingdom burials tombs, and these are manifested as large mounds that look like tall hills. They are found all over town, and apparently include several double tombs where a husband and wife were buried in a single tomb. In these tombs, the coffin and accouterments were placed in a deep wood-lined pit. This was then covered with dirt and waterproof clay. Boulders and dirt were then placed on top. The few that have been excavated have yielded weapons, gold, and other precious artifacts and these finds are now exhibited in museums in both Gyeongju and Seoul.

As much of Korea’s original historical artifacts and structures have been obliterated from successive foreign invasions, the Gyeongju Tumuli are a quite important and extant link to the country’s past.