Gold Earrings from the Double Burial in Bomun-dong, Gyeongju


Essay by Yoon Sangdeok

Gold Earrings from Bubuchong Tomb, Gyeongju

Gold Earrings from Bubuchong Tomb, Gyeongju, mid-6th century, Silla Period, gold, 8.7 x 3.8 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 90)

Most resplendent earrings of the Three Kingdoms Period

This pair of gold earrings came from the “Double Burial in Bomun-dong,” a tomb site in Gyeongju, the former capital of Silla. This tomb, which consists of two separate burial chambers covered by a large single mound, was investigated in 1915, during the Japanese colonial period. Each earring is elaborately decorated with thin gold wire, tiny gold granules, and many ornate spangles, making these the most resplendent earrings of the Three Kingdoms Period. In 1962, the earrings were designated as National Treasure 90.

While the manufacturing techniques and decorative patterns of these earrings have continually been studied, little is known about their discovery or ownership. For decades, most information about the double burial was based on speculation, since the excavation report remained unpublished. One bit of speculation, which had been proposed at the time of excavation and was accepted for many years, was that the occupants of the double burial had been a husband and wife. Then in 2011, ninety-six years after the excavation, Gyeongju National Museum published the original report on the Double Burial in Bomun-dong. The publication of this report revealed new facts and corrected erroneous information related to the burial. Based on the facts from this report, we will now examine the excavation process, the structure of the double burial, and the identity of the owner of the earrings.

View of the wooden-chamber tombs with stone mounds of Gyeongju. This burial ground has great significance in the history of Korean archaeology, as the site of the first excavation ever conducted by Korean archaeologists, in 1946 (underlying map © Google)

View of the wooden-chamber tombs with stone mounds of Gyeongju (underlying map © Google)

Excavating the Double Burial

Cross-section of the tomb at the Double Burial, Gyeongju (National Institute of Cultural Heritage)

Cross-section of the tomb at the Double Burial, Bomun-dong, Gyeongju (National Institute of Cultural Heritage)

Even prior to Japan’s forced annexation of Korea, which became official in 1910, Japanese researchers carried out investigations of Korea’s history and culture. The Japanese were particularly interested in Gyeongju, which had been the capital of the Silla Kingdom for almost 1000 years (57 B.C.E.–935 C.E.). Investigations were carried out on stone pagodas, Buddhist buildings, and Buddhist temple sites, while various other ancient sites were excavated. Prior to the excavation of the Double Burial in Bomun-dong in 1915, several other Silla tombs had been investigated, although not fully excavated. For example, the early excavations of wooden-chamber tombs with stone mounds were usually abandoned before the bottom layer of the stone mound was reached, so that the burial chamber was not completely identified.

The excavation of the Double Burial in Bomun-dong marked the beginning of Japanese archaeologists’ wide-scale investigations of the ancient properties of Gyeongju. The excavation team, led by Sekino Tadashi, began the investigation on July 6, 1915. By the second day, the team had finished examining the interior of the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance. The investigation of the wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound was completed on July 12.

Plan of the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance (left) and wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound (right). Both drawings were made in 1915

Plan of the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance (left) and wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound (right), Bomun-dong, Gyeongju. Both drawings were made in 1915.

After both burials had been thoroughly investigated, the researchers produced a rudimentary plan drawing of the interior structure and artifact distribution, making this the first excavation in Korea in which the position of the grave goods had been recorded (albeit simply). The gold earrings designated National Treasure 90 were recovered from the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance.

Floor plan of the Double Burial at Gyeongju (National Institute of Cultural Heritage)

Floor plan of the Double Burial, Bumon-dong, Gyeongju (National Institute of Cultural Heritage)

As mentioned, the Double Burial in Bomun-dong consists of two separate burials covered by a single mound. Of the two burials, the wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound was constructed first. Some time after this tomb was completed, one side of the earthen mound was dug out and the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance was constructed adjacent to the existing stone mound. Then both burials were re-covered with an earthen mound. Studies estimate that the wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound was constructed around 1500 years ago, some time between 520–540 C.E., while the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance was likely produced from 540–560 C.E. This double burial is therefore a crucial piece of evidence that demonstrates Silla’s transition from wooden-chamber tombs with a stone mound to stone-chamber tombs with a corridor entrance.

Gold Earrings from Bubuchong Tomb, Gyeongju, mid-6th century, Silla Period (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 90)

Gold Earrings from Bubuchong Tomb, Gyeongju, mid-6th century, Silla Period, gold, 8.7 x 3.8 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 90)

Earrings and gender

Throughout history, most cultures have associated some types of clothing and accessories with a certain gender, although the specific symbols of gender identity change over time. Thus, in an archaeological excavation, the clothing and accessories are important clues for determining the gender of a tomb occupant. Since clothing tends to disintegrate, however, archaeologists are often left only with jewelry or other accessories.

Gold earrings, c. 5th century, Silla Kingdom, from the south mound at Hwangnamdaechong Tomb in Hwangnam-dong, Gyeongju (Gyeongju National Museum)

Thin-ringed gold earrings, c. 5th century, Silla Kingdom, from the south mound at Hwangnamdaechong Tomb in Hwangnam-dong, Gyeongju (Gyeongju National Museum)

In Korea, research of this type has revealed that earrings were an important indicator of gender in the Silla Kingdom. Silla earrings can be divided into two categories, depending on the size of the central ring: thin-ringed earrings and thick-ringed earrings. While thin-ringed earrings have generally been found with individuals who were buried with swords, none of the individuals with thick-ringed earrings were found to be wearing swords. One key example of this pattern is Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, a double burial of two people who are believed to have been a Silla king and queen. The burial in the south mound contained the remains of a man who was found with thin-ringed earrings. The burial in the north mound contained the remains of a woman who was found with thick-ringed earrings, along with a belt featuring the inscription “夫人帶” (meaning “belt of the wife”). Based on such evidence, it is generally accepted that individuals in Silla tombs who are buried with thin-ringed earrings and swords are men, while those with thick-ringed earrings are women. Thus, the discovery of a set of thick-ringed earrings in the stone-chamber tomb with corridor entrance of the Double Burial in Bomun-dong seems to confirm that the occupant was a woman.

Interestingly, the excavations of the wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound also uncovered a pair of thick-ringed gold earrings, along with a sword. In this case, however, the sword was not worn by the deceased, but merely placed in the compartment for grave goods, near the head of the deceased. Notably, the excavations of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb also yielded several swords from the grave goods compartment of the north mound (i.e., the queen’s burial). Based on this evidence, the occupant of the wooden-chamber tomb with stone mound of the Double Burial in Bomun-dong also seems to be a woman. It therefore becomes clear that the pair buried in the Double Burial in Bomun-dong were not husband and wife.

Left: queen's gold crown from the north mound of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, Gyeongju, Silla Kingdom, 27.3 cm high, National Treasure 191 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea); right: queen's gold belt from the north mound of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, Gyeongju, Silla Kingdom, 120 cm long, National Treasure 192 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Left: queen’s gold crown from the north mound of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, Gyeongju, Silla Kingdom, 27.3 cm high, National Treasure 191 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea); right: queen’s gold belt from the north mound of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, Gyeongju, Silla Kingdom, 120 cm long, National Treasure 192 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Identifying the deceased

The types of accessories that a Silla person wore depended not only on gender, but also on social status. Earrings seem to have been the most common type of personal ornament in Silla, worn by people of various classes. Individuals with higher social status have been found with other accessories, including bracelets, rings, necklaces, swords, and crowns. In addition to the gold earrings, the individuals in the Double Burial in Bomun-dong were also found with silver and bronze bracelets, and silver rings. The magnificence of the gold earrings suggests the high status of the individual in the tomb, which is confirmed by the quality of the other accessories. Based on recent studies of accessories found in Silla tombs, three different social ranks have been delineated. According to this framework, the individuals buried in the Double Burial in Bomun-dong belonged to the highest rank within Silla society.

What was the relationship between these two women, whose separate tombs were covered with a single mound? It seems highly probable that they were close relatives, such as sisters or a mother and daughter. Going a step further, we can perhaps imagine a bereaved mother who wished to be buried with her unmarried daughter, who had died at a young age.

Gold Earring from Bubuchong Tomb (detail), Gyeongju, mid-6th century, Silla Period (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 90)

Gold Earring from Bubuchong Tomb (detail), Gyeongju, mid-6th century, Silla Period, gold, 8.7 x 3.8 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 90)

Even after being buried for around 1500 years, the gold earrings still elicit gasps of amazement for their lustrous sheen and splendid decoration. One cannot help but be awed by the elaborate nature of the designs, with thin gold wire and hundreds of gold granules used to create tortoiseshell patterns containing flower motifs. But upon close analysis, even this stunning example of the most advanced Silla metalwork technology is not flawless. Investigation with a magnifying glass reveals some misshaped gold granules that were not completely heated, as well as a few granules that were attached in the wrong spot. We can only imagine the anguish of the craftsperson who, upon discovering these tiny blemishes after several months of work, may have thought, “Do I have to melt the earrings down and start from scratch?”

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Additional resources

Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea website.

Silla, the Golden Kingdom of Korea, from the Gyeongju Museum, on Google Arts and Culture.

Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Gold Earrings from the Double Burial in Bomun-dong, Gyeongju," in Smarthistory, December 12, 2022, accessed February 6, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/gold-earrings-double-burial-bomun-dong-gyeongju/.