Essay by Kim Hyunhee
This dazzling necklace is made from openwork gold beads, each consisting of fused gold rings with attached gold spangles, with a large curved jade as the main pendant. Found in a tomb located at Noseo-ri 215 beonji in Gyeongju, this is the most opulent necklace ever recovered from a Silla tomb.
The Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb is located near the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, a cluster of Silla tombs of the highest status, dating from the fourth to the sixth century. In particular, the tomb lies alongside the southwest section of the protective stones surrounding Houchong Tomb (Tomb 140), which yielded the famous bronze bowl with a hou (壺杅) inscription.
Magnificent object discovered by chance
On April 3, 1933, a man named Kim Deokeun was plowing to plant pumpkin seeds at Noseo-ri 215 beonji when he made a remarkable discovery, unearthing four curved jade beads, a tubular bead, a gold ring, a gold earring, a pair of silver bracelets, and thirty-three gold beads. Mr. Kim reported his find to the Gyeongju police, who notified the Joseon Government-General, which dispatched Kyoichi Arimitsu, an assistant at the Joseon Historical Relics Research Institute, to investigate. Upon viewing the discovered artifacts at the police station, Mr. Arimitsu realized that only one ring and earring had been found, even though those items usually come in pairs. Thus, he decided to visit the site of discovery (i.e., the residence of Kim Deokeun), which was located at the edge of the Nodong-ri and Noseo-ri Burial Grounds (where Geumgwanchong Tomb and Seobongchong Tomb are situated), in close proximity to Houchong Tomb.
Based on Mr. Arimitsu’s recommendation, the Korea Historical Site Research Society conducted emergency excavations of the site from April 12 through 19. Through this excavation, the stone mound layer of the tomb was successfully discovered and explored, yielding jars, covered dishes, and vessels with handles. In addition, a single gold earring, gold beads, curved beads, and tubular beads were found in the area believed to be the floor of the wooden chamber.
Approximately 40 cm away from these items, a pair of gold bracelets, a pair of silver bracelets, and several gold and silver rings were also discovered. As such ornaments were typically worn by the deceased, their distribution on the tomb floor indicates that the head of the deceased faced eastwards.
Despite the relatively short duration of the excavation (eight days), numerous artifacts were recovered, including an earring that formed a pair with the one that had been discovered earlier, forty-four gold beads, thirty-three jade beads (including curved, tubular, and round beads), gold and silver bracelets, and rings. Various types of Silla pottery were also found. Unfortunately, after the excavation, some of these artifacts were taken to Tokyo, while others were kept in Seoul.
Detailed comparison of gold Silla necklaces
Although most Silla necklaces consist of glass beads, some were also made with gold, crystal, jade, or agate beads. The necklace from the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb has unique openwork beads, formed by fusing small gold rings; each bead consists of twelve gold rings, six in each symmetrical hemisphere. For added splendor, each gold bead is attached to five leaf-shaped spangles, the edges of which were rolled in and rendered with incised patterns.
Similar gold necklaces have also been discovered in the North Mound of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb in Gyeongju; in Geumjochong Tomb in Yangsan; and in Tomb 1 from Gyeseong District A in Changnyeong. However, none of those necklaces have openwork beads; instead, their beads were made by fusing together two hemispheric pieces of gold sheet, the same technique that was used to make the thick rings of Silla earrings. Gold spangles were attached to the area where the two hemispheric pieces were fused together.
Other artifacts from the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb
Other treasures found in the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb include thick-ring earrings, gold and silver bracelets, rings, jars, and lidded dishes. The rings feature various incised decorations, while the gold bracelets were incised with a dragon design. The silver bracelets, on the other hand, were left undecorated.
Only the gold and silver ornaments could definitely be attributed to the interior of the tomb, but other items were found around the stone mound that covered the wooden burial chamber. For instance, near the southeastern edge of the stone mound was a large jar that contained oyster, clam, freshwater snail, conch, and abalone shells, as well as fish and bird bones. Also, about fifty lidded dishes had been placed beneath the shells and animal bones. The emergency excavation also uncovered a structure consisting of four to five layers of stacked stones in the vicinity of the large jar. Later excavations of Houchong Tomb (Tomb 140), conducted in 1946, revealed that this stone structure had once been part of the protective stones surrounding Houchong Tomb. In other words, it appears that parts of the stone mound of the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb had been destroyed through the encroachment of the surrounding stones of Houchong Tomb. As such, it seems likely that the large jar of shells and bones was not connected to the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb, but was rather associated with rituals that were held in conjunction with the construction of the surrounding stones of Houchong Tomb.
Similarly, a large jar containing dishes, bird bones, and various seashells was discovered within the earthen mound of Hwangnamdaechong Tomb, while a large jar containing a square lidded dish and seashells (including oyster shells) was recently found during excavations in the area beyond the surrounding stones of Seobongchong Tomb.
Relationship between three Silla tombs
The mound of the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb is conjoined with the mounds of Houchong Tomb and Eunryeongchong Tomb, making it possible to establish the sequence of the tombs’ construction. First, excavations have shown that Houchong Tomb and Eunryeongchong Tomb were constructed as a gourd-shaped double tomb (like Hwangnamdaechong Tomb), with Eunryeongchong Tomb being built before Houchong Tomb. However, a detailed examination has shown that the surrounding stones of Houchong Tomb were placed atop the stone mound of the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb, indicating that the latter must have been built first. This sequence is further supported by the dates of the artifacts found within the respective tombs.
Sad history of the gold necklace
For organizational purposes, every object in the collection of the National Museum of Korea is given a serial number that provides information about how the object was acquired. Oddly, however, both the gold necklace and the thick-ring earrings from the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb have two serial numbers. The explanation for this anomaly is rather unfortunate. At the time of the excavation, the Joseon Historical Relics Research Institute (which carried out the excavation) had a rule stating that assemblages of recovered artifacts should be divided and stored separately in Japan and Korea. Complying with this regulation, Mr. Arimitsu (the archaeologist who had led the excavation) sent one of the pair of gold earrings, one of the pair of gold bracelets, and forty-four of the seventy-seven pieces forming the gold necklace to Japan, where they were donated to the Tokyo Imperial Museum.
The items remained in Japan until 1966, when South Korea and Japan signed the 1966 Properties Agreement for the repatriation of cultural objects. Upon their return to Korea, the artifacts were reunited with the other treasures from the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb, which were already part of the collection of the National Museum of Korea. Hence, the one gold earring and the thirty-three pieces of the gold necklace that had remained in Korea had already been given serial numbers beginning with “bon” (for “bongwan-poom”), meaning that they were part of the museum’s original collection. However, the gold earring and pieces of the gold necklace that were returned in 1966 were given serial numbers beginning with “ssu” (for “sinsu-poom”), meaning that they were newly acquired artifacts. As a result, the gold earrings and gold necklace now have two serial numbers.
But the star-crossed legacy of the gold earrings from the Noseo-ri 215 beonji tomb does not end there. After the items were returned from Japan, the pair of gold earrings, the pair of gold bracelets, and the gold necklace were set to be designated as Treasures No. 455, 454, and 456 (respectively). Due to an administrative error, however, a different pair of gold earrings, from Hwangoh-ri Tomb 52 in Gyeongju, was mistakenly designated as Treasure No. 455. After the mistake was discovered, a meeting was held to review the designation, but ultimately, the earrings from Hwangoh-ri Tomb 52 were allowed to keep their status as Treasure No. 455.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.