2017 travel diary 2: The Gaya royal tombs in Haman County

Gaya tombs on Marisan, Gaya-eup, Haman-gun

Gaya-eup, Haman-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, Sunday 30 April, 12 noon. Ever since I had seen a small ancient Gaya kingdom burial area in the hills above Saengcho, a town in Sancheong County, I had been intrigued. The tombs’ location was so different from the imposing tumuli laid out in the plains of Gyeongju or the geomantically auspicious locations of the Joseon kings. These Sancheong tombs are not particularly imposing, and you have to know where to look for them. But elsewhere in Gyeongsangnamdo there are three much more important tomb areas relating to the Gaya confederacy, an affiliation of kingdoms which thrived in the first five centuries CE before being absorbed into the Silla kingdom. Goryeong County contains tombs from the Daegaya kingdom, Gimhae is home to the Geumgwangaya tombs and Haman County has the Aragaya tombs.

A map of the site
A map of the site on one of the notice boards near the county museum

In late 2013, the Korean Ministry of Culture presented two submissions to UNESCO for inclusion on the tentative list of world heritage sites: one for the Daegaya tumuli in Goryeong County; and one for the Gimhae and Haman County tumuli. Gimhae and Haman both lie in between Busan and Sancheong and were thus prime candidates for a site visit as I journeyed from Min Young-ki’s exhibition in Busan to his home county in the Jiri-san area. A quick look at the aerial photographs of the areas on the UNESCO websites indicates that Haman has the better collection. And as Haman County requires hardly any detour from the expressway, that was the obvious choice of the two sites for a detour. After all you don’t want to do both: I hate to say it, but probably if you’ve seen one you don’t really need to see the other.

Gaya tombs on Marisan, Gaya-eup, Haman-gun

The Haman County tombs are centred around a small hill called Marisan (말이산) in the appropriately named Gaya-eup, and a large car park attached to the county museum is the obvious place from which to start your exploration. According to the information at the site, “Marisan” is a corruption of “Meorisan”, which means “mountain of the head” or “mountain with royal tombs”. One suggestion as to why Gaya tombs are at the top of the hill is to reinforce the hierarchy in Gaya social structures: the people are subordinate to their rulers even beyond the grave.

Steel armour for a horse, excavated in HamSouth Kyongsang Province
Steel armour for a horse, excavated at the Marisan tomb site

According to the UNESCO submission there are around 100 tomb mounds in the area, half of which are more than 20m in diameter, the remainder being less imposing. However, only 37 are specifically numbered on the information boards dotted around the site. The area was first excavated at the start of the Colonial period, between 1914 and 1917, and has been regularly excavated since. A more recent discovery has been a suit of horse armour similar to that depicted in Goguryeo tomb paintings. But the archaeology has also revealed something more gruesome. According to the papers submitted to UNESCO:

“It is a distinguishing feature that there is only one burial chamber in each tomb in this area. It means that Aragaya buried the dead together with the living as attendants in the same chamber. It makes a difference with Daegaya, which has multi burial chambers for the living as attendants.”

I confess that the practice of burying living servants along with the deceased king came as something of a surprise. The practice was not unknown in Shang dynasty China (which came to an end in 1046 BCE), but closer to the time we are talking about the practice in China had been superseded by the burial of statues (think the terracotta army) or figurines (akin to Korean kkokkdu).

A recent excavation in the Gyeongju area indicates that the Gaya people were not along in burying the living, though in the Silla instance the purpose of the human sacrifice seems to be to ensure an auspicious outcome for a building project rather than to look after a corpse in the afterlife.

If, in visiting these tombs and walking around the area, you are seeking to transport yourself back in time to the 6th century you’d best pick your location and viewpoint with care. At the northernmost end of the site, closest to downtown Gaya-eup and its busy market, you’ll find that farmers are growing potatoes on the hillside near tombs 1, 2 and 3. And if you stand at tomb 2 looking back towards tomb 1 you’ll feel slightly disappointed that you’ve got a view of a pretty ugly apartment building. As it happens, this is the end of the tumuli site which, thanks to the vagaries of GPS, I explored first, before starting again at the county museum.

Gaya tombs on Marisan, Gaya-eup, Haman-gun

But as you walk further into the hills, this is where the time spent gets well-rewarded. You get further away from habitation. You’re not quite sure how much further the area extends, and you look beyond the tumuli on the next hilltop and the one after, and the tombs seem to carry on into the distance until they become at one with the hills on the horizon.

It’s a nice place to stroll around, and if you want a dose of Gaya history culture there’s the museum to look around too. Overall, it’s well worth the detour from the Busan – Jinju expressway.

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