Essay by Yoon Sangdeok
These two horse-rider-shaped vessels, designated as National Treasure No.91, are representative artifacts of the Silla Kingdom and recognizable emblems of Korea’s cultural heritage. Upon their discovery in 1924, the pair of unique ceramic vessels immediately grabbed people’s attention, and they remain among the most popular displays at the National Museum of Korea. The vessels seem to depict a rider of high social standing and a servant, each on horseback. The riders’ clothing and the horse trappings are expressed in a very realistic manner, providing important information about the daily lives of the Silla people.
Discovery of the vessels
The horse-rider-shaped vessels were excavated from Geumnyeongchong Tomb in Nodong-dong, Gyeongju (the former capital of the Silla Kingdom), on May 30, 1924, during the Japanese colonial period. Constructed in the early sixth century, Geumnyeongchong Tomb is situated within a cluster of large Silla tombs. For example, Geumnyeongchong Tomb is about 15 meters south of Bonghwangdae Tomb, the largest known Silla single tomb mound. Other large tombs in the vicinity include Hwangnamdaechong Tomb and Cheonmachong Tomb to the south, and Geumgwanchong Tomb and Seobongchong Tomb to the west.
In particular, Geumnyeongchong Tomb is only about 50 meters from Geumgwanchong Tomb, the tomb where the first Silla gold crown was discovered, in 1920. Public interest was greatly aroused by the discovery of that crown, with Geumgwanchong Tomb being hailed as “Tutankhamen’s Tomb of the East.” In truth, however, little was known about the structure or conditions of the tomb, since the crown had been discovered by accident during the construction of a house.
Two other tombs were identified at the construction site, which were later named Geumnyeongchong Tomb and Signichong Tomb. Japanese archaeologists persuaded the Joseon Governor-General to give them permission to excavate Geumnyeongchong Tomb, since its mound had been partially destroyed. To the surprise of everyone, the resultant excavations of Geumnyeongchong Tomb uncovered another gold crown.
Geumnyeongchong Tomb is a wooden-chamber tomb with a stone mound, consisting of an in-ground wooden chamber that is covered first with a thick layer of stones, and then with dirt. A wooden coffin was placed in the wooden chamber, with the head of the deceased facing east. Buried on the east side of the coffin was a small casket containing grave goods, which is where the horse-rider-shaped vessels were found.
Tomb of a prince?
The person buried in the tomb was laid to rest wearing a gold crown, gold earrings, a gold belt, and a sword at the waist. The opulent nature of these objects indicates that the deceased may have been a member of the Silla royal family. The deceased appears to have been male, based on the fact that he wore thin-ringed earrings and a sword. Interestingly, the gold belt was significantly shorter than other belts from Silla tombs. Since the gold crown is also smaller than comparable examples, it is likely that the deceased was a child. Considering all of this information, the occupant may have been a young prince who died before reaching adulthood.
Insights from the vessel
Many other interesting details can be gleaned by taking a closer look at specific parts of the vessel. For example, let’s take a closer look at the rider.
At first glance, the rider seems to have a long goatee, but the extension below his chin is actually the tie securing his hat. The rider’s high-bridged nose is particularly striking. On his lower body, the rider wears trousers that are covered with tiny notches, perhaps representing the scales of armor. The object attached to his side is something of a mystery, as it does not seem to be a sword. The rear view of the rider shows his unique hat, as well as some type of guard across his upper back. The rider’s feet are secured in stirrups that seem to be made of leather, and the tips of his shoes are pointed like beoseon (traditional Korean socks).
Now, let’s take a closer look at the horse and its trappings. The horn-like extension on the horse’s head is part of its mane, which has been tied into a single strand. The horse also wears bells around its chest. The horse seems to be smiling as it bites down on its bit.
The front of the saddle is decorated with a pattern of triangles, and the clasp of its strap can also be seen. Various accessories are attached to the saddle, including a saddle cover. These saddle covers were sometimes decorated with paintings, like the one that was discovered in Cheonmachong Tomb.
Function of the vessels
At first glance, these artifacts may look like simple ceramic sculptures, but they actually function as serving vessels for pouring liquids. The hollow interior of the horse holds about 240 ml of liquid; it could be filled through a funnel on the horse’s back, and the liquid could be poured out through a tubular spout extending from its chest. The vessels may have been used by members of the Silla royal family to serve alcohol or water.
Why would a serving vessel be made in the shape of a horse? Of course, horses were very important to the Silla society, especially as a means of transportation. But the Silla people also believed that horses guided the deceased to the afterlife. Perhaps reflecting this belief, many artifacts associated with horses have been discovered in ancient tombs. Examples include the “Painting of the Heavenly Horse” in Cheonmachong Tomb (shown above), as well as various horse-shaped ceramic figures or figurines attached to pottery. As mentioned, these two vessels appear to depict a servant and an individual of higher social standing. The servant is carrying a bell, and seems to be leading the other figure into the afterlife. Supporting this interpretation, the servant vessel was discovered just in front of the the other vessel.
Making the vessel
An X-ray photo of the horse-rider-shaped vessel (i.e., the individual of higher social standing) shows its hollow interior. Close examination of this photo reveals a number of other fascinating details. First, look closely at the base of the horse’s body, where the legs were attached. When attaching the legs, the craftsperson would have had to apply quite a bit of pressure, pushing against the body. Thus, we would expect to find that the interior wall had been pushed slightly inward from this pressure, but that is not the case. Thus, it can be ascertained that some type of hard object—likely a cylindrical piece of wood—was placed against the hollow body when attaching the legs. But then, how was the wood removed from the interior of the horse? Again, the answer can be found in the photo, which shows traces of pinching in the area of the horse’s backside. Hence, the wood was probably removed through a hole in the backside, which was then pinched closed.