The Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology

Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology Vol. 16
Research on the Excavation and Investigation of the Tomb of King Muryeong
Kang Wonpyo

Jinju National Museum

Journal of Korean Art & Archaeology 2022, Vol.16 pp.25-39


Copyright & License

ⓒ 2022 National Museum of Korea, All rights reserved.

Gongju, Baekje’s Second Capital

Baekje’s Relocation to Ungjin

In the ninth month of 475 CE, King Jangsu (長壽王, r. 413–491) of Goguryeo attacked Hanseong (漢城), Baekje’s capital, with an army of 30,000. Closing the fortress gates, Baekje’s King Gaero (蓋鹵王, r. 455–475) resisted valiantly but could not withstand Goguryeo’s well-synchronized attack from all four sides. With the fortress gates on fire and completely surrounded by Goguryeo forces, the North Fortress (北城) fell first, followed by the South Fortress (南城), and King Gaero was eventually caught and beheaded.

Having developed into a state based in the Northeast region of what is now present-day China, Goguryeo actively pursued strategies for southern expansion, such as the relocation of its capital from Gungnaeseong to Pyeongyang in 427. This expansion was met by fierce resistance from Baekje. In 371, the Baekje army defeated Goguryeo forces at Pyeongyangseong Fortress, and King Gogukwon (故國原王, r. 331–371) of Goguryeo was killed in the battle. This paved the groundwork for Baekje’s growth into the most powerful kingdom of the peninsula at the time. But starting from the fifth century, it was locked in a stalemate for hegemony with Goguryeo that had become more powerful. King Gaero attempted to put pressure on Goguryeo by maintaining close links with the Northern Wei (北魏) of China. To counteract this, Goguryeo carefully made plans and preparations for Baekje’s absolute defeat and marched southwards. The might of Baekje’s army at the time was not enough to defend against the attacking Goguryeo forces that, by then, had become the most powerful in Northeast Asia.

Upon Goguryeo’s attack, King Gaero’s son, Munju (文周), quickly went to Silla to request reinforcements. However, by the time he returned with an army of ten thousand, the fortresses had fallen, and King Gaero had been killed. The newly crowned King Munju (文周王, r. 475–477) decided to leave Hanseong, which was in ruins, and relocate the Baekje capital to Ungjin (熊津), in present-day Gongju City, Chungcheongnam-do Province. Located along the banks of the Geumgang River, the geographic environment of Ungjin was more favorable for defending against Goguryeo’s attacks. Ungjin remained Baekje’s administrative and cultural center for 63 years until 638, when the capital was relocated once more, this time to Sabi (泗沘), in present-day Buyeo County, Chungcheongnam-do Province.

King Munju attempted to overhaul the state system, but royal authority could not be easily recovered after it had become diminished due to the loss of control over the Hangang River region, which has been the kingdom’s center for approximately 500 years. In addition, the power base of the central and local noblemen and the powerful offcials (權臣) had increased to the extent that it became difficult to maintain control over them. King Munju and King Samgeun (三斤王, r. 477–479) died or were killed very soon into their reigns. King Dongseong (東城王, r. 479–501), who next ascended to the throne, made many efforts to strengthen royal authority but was eventually murdered by powerful offcials. King Dongseong’s heir and the fourth Baekje ruler of the Ungjin period was King Muryeong (武寧王, r. 501–523). It was during King Muryeong’s reign that Baekje royal authority was stabilized once more, and the kingdom was able to recover its status on the international stage.

Having subdued the revolt by Baek Ga (苩加) who had murdered King Dongseong, King Muryeong reorganized Baekje’s system of local rule so that it could be controlled through centralized management. Baekje established close relations with the Liang (梁) of China and the Wa (倭) of Japan in order to fend off attacks from Goguryeo and the Mohe tribes. The state’s coffers were used for the benefit of the populace and to build embankments so that displaced communities could settle down and farm the land. Such strategies helped build up favorable public opinion and bring stability to the kingdom.

The period spanning from the reign of King Muryeong to that of his successor, King Seong (聖王, r. 523–554), is regarded as the era of Baekje’s efflorescence. In 538 (sixteenth year of King Seong’s reign), the capital was relocated once again, from the narrow confines of Ungjin to Sabi (Buyeo) with its wide plains, thereby establishing the foundations for a grand vision of state management.

Upon relocating the capital to Sabi, King Seong reorganized the system of administrative control for both Baekje’s center and its local areas, thereby establishing a political governance system centered around royal authority. Continuous efforts were made to reclaim the lands previously lost to Goguryeo and to expand the state’s power to the north and the south.

In the process of pushing back Goguryeo forces to the north and reclaiming the Hangang River region, King Seong was killed by Silla forces that had launched a surprise attack at the Battle of Gwansanseong Fortress. As a result of this, Baekje’s relationship with Silla became antagonistic. Fierce battles with Silla took place, particularly during the reigns of King Mu (武王, r. 600–641) and King Uija (義慈王 r. 641–660), and Baekje established an alliance with Goguryeo in order to put pressure on Silla. Feeling threatened, Silla came to establish an alliance with Tang China, and in the seventh month of 660, Silla–Tang allied forces attacked Baekje. When the final line of defense fell, King Uija fled with the Crown Prince to Ungjinseong (Gongju). However, following the besiegement of the Ungjinseong Fortress, King Uija and several governors of the Baekje fortress surrendered. This brought an end to the 678 years-long history of Baekje, spanning the reign of thirty-one rulers.

Upon Silla’s unification of the Three Kingdoms, Ungjinseong (Gongju) was restructured into the administrative district of “Ungcheon-ju” (熊川州). It was following the reorganization of place names that took place in 940 (twenty-third year of King Taejo’s reign) in the newly established Goryeo Dynasty that the name Gongju (公州) came to be used instead, continuing into the present day. In 1603 (thirty-sixth year of King Seonjo’s reign in the Joseon Dynasty), after the Imjin War (1592–1598), the Provincial Office of Chungcheong Province was relocated from Cheongju to Gongju, where it continued to function as the political, administrative, and cultural center of the Joseon Dynasty’s Chungcheong Province until the modern period.

Gongju retained its high status into the period of Japanese Occupation, functioning as an important administrative locale where the Provincial Office of Chungcheongnam-do Province was located. However, with the relocation of the Provincial Office to Daejeon in 1932, the area lost its importance as an administrative center and declined into a provincial city. By the early twentieth century, almost all of the evidence of Baekje’s royal fortress walls, palaces, and temples—which were a testament to its past glory—ceased to exist, with only faint traces remaining. Baekje’s presence in the area could only be ascertained from the mounds scattered throughout Songsan-ri, said to have been the Baekje royal tombs and a museum run by a private organization.

Investigation of the Songsan-ri Burial Ground

The Songsan-ri Burial Ground, located approximately one kilometer northwest of Gongju’s city center, was remembered even during the Joseon Dynasty as the resting place of Baekje’s royalty. The mounded tombs can be found distributed throughout Songsan (松山) Mountain, which has an altitude of 130 meters above sea level. The tombs are situated along the southern slope of a ridge that extends in a north-south direction; one cluster is located in the middle section of the ridge and the other on the southern slope. Traces of no longer extant tombs have also been identified in the vicinity of these tombs.

The earliest research investigation of the Songsan-ri Burial Ground was conducted by the Museum of the Joseon Government-General in 1927. Five mounded tombs situated in a row along the middle section of the ridge were investigated. As they had previously been subjected to grave robbing several times, few remaining artifacts were recovered. However, it was possible to establish the structure of the tombs’ architecture—they were identified as stone chamber tombs with horizontal entrances featuring barrel, vault-shaped ceilings. Another five tombs were investigated between 1932 and 1933. Of these, Tomb No. 6 was identified as a brick chamber tomb (塼築墳), resulting in it receiving much attention.

Tomb No. 6 had also been robbed several times, resulting in the absence of artifacts. However, it was possible to establish that the tomb had been constructed by stacking fired bricks of a standardized size, rather than the stone blocks that had been used for the other tombs. In addition, in contrast to the rectangular floorplan of the other tombs, Tomb No. 6 had a square-shaped floor and a barrel, vault-shaped ceiling. It also featured images of the Four Guardians (四神圖, Green Dragon, White Tiger, Red Phoenix, and Black Snake and Tortoise) with one on each of the four walls. Such brick chamber tombs with barrel, vault-shaped ceilings were popular in the Southern Dynasties of China, so it was judged that the building materials and tomb structure had been introduced from there. These characteristics of Tomb No. 6 are regarded as important evidence illustrating the close relationship between Baekje and China at the time.

The archaeological material recovered from these investigations was housed separately in collections based in the Museum of the Government-General and the Gongju Museum. Upon liberation in 1945, the Korean government took over the management of national museums from the US Military Government in Korea (美軍政廳) and Gongju Museum first became the Gongju Branch of the National Museum of Korea before officially opening its doors as Gongju National Museum in 1946. However, the collection of Baekje artifacts recovered from sites in the Gongju region was extremely lacking, making it difficult to faithfully represent the situation of Baekje during the Ungjin period. As such, the unexpected discovery of a tomb at the Songsan-ri Burial Ground in 1971 had a great and long-lasting impact on studies of Baekje and Korean history.


Fig. 1. View of the Songsan-ri Burial Ground in the early twentieth century

Discovery and Investigation of Tomb of King Muryeong

Maintenance Works Undertaken on the Songsan-ri Burial Ground in 1971

Until the 1970s, Tombs No. 5 and 6 of the Songsan-ri Burial Ground had been left open to the public, who were able to enter the burial chamber. However, the tomb structure experienced damage due to water seepage during the summer (particularly during the rainy season) and the damp atmosphere within the chamber. In order to solve these issues, a plan was made to add drainage facilities to the north of the burial mound of Tomb No. 6. In June of 1971, construction works began, overseen by the then Bureau of Cultural Property. On July fifth, during the process of digging up the northern section of the mound to make room for the drainage facilities, a worker digging at one end felt his shovel hit something hard. Careful excavation of the area revealed the presence of bricks that had been carefully stacked. Construction was stopped at once, and word was sent to the Bureau of Cultural Property.

The uncovered brick structure was assessed to be part of a previously unknown Baekje tomb, and an excavation team comprised of members of the Bureau of Cultural Property and the National Museum of Korea was immediately formed. The first squad of the excavation team rushed down from Seoul and by the morning of July seventh was able to join the employee of the Gongju Museum who had been safeguarding the site. Upon the arrival of the rest of the excavation team, including Kim Won-yong (the Director of the National Museum of Korea at the time), who was the head of the excavation team, digging commenced once again at around four o’clock. The silent onlookers could not hold back their excitement as more and more sections of the brick structure came to be revealed. The possibility that the tomb might also be a brick chamber tomb, such as Tomb No. 6, as well as a royal tomb, was proposed. The silence was replaced with shouts of excitement as more and more soil was cleared away, and the upper edge of the tomb entrance—with the stacked bricks forming an arch—was revealed at last. Further clearing of the soil revealed the tomb entrance, closed off using stacked bricks.

At the time of discovery, the area in front of the entrance had been packed with soil, and the outer side of the bricks used to close off the entrance featured a thick, hard layer of lime, making the task of digging through the layers time consuming and arduous. Eventually, the decision was made to borrow an emergency generator from the Gongju County Office. It was used to turn on the outdoor lighting and other equipment that allowed excavation to continue into the night. Around the time that the entrance structure and its surroundings were finally unearthed, raindrops began to fall from the sky that had been clear up until then. The rain soon became a torrent, quickly filling up the pit that had been dug in front of the tomb. At first, efforts were made to remove the water using buckets, but eventually the decision was made to demolish the east wall of the pit in order to drain the rainwater. The rain soon stopped, but it was impossible to continue work, so the excavation came to a halt near midnight.

Excavation work commenced once again very early on the morning of July eighth. The digging of the pit in front of the tomb continued at a very slow pace because the soil was concrete-like as the layers had been stamped and lime had been added. It was around three o’clock in the afternoon when the original ground surface was reached, and the front of the tomb was completely revealed. Throughout the process of excavation, no evidence of tomb robbing was observed, which suggested a high possibility that the tomb had not been looted.


Fig. 2. Songsan-ri Burial Ground and the Tomb of King Muryeong (Marking by the author)


Fig. 3. The unearthed upper section of the entrance of the Tomb of King Muryeong

At four o’clock, some food was prepared and used in a ritual to pray for the safe and successful excavation of the tomb. Afterwards, from a quarter past four, the bricks closing off the entrance began to be removed. Once a couple of the outermost bricks had been pulled out, the uppermost brick that had sealed off the entrance fell out. According to the witness accounts of several members of the excavation team that had been observing the removal of the entrance sealing bricks, at that moment when the uppermost brick fell out, white vapor could be seen escaping out of the hole.


Fig. 4. Removal of the soil layers to reveal the entrance

Discovery of the Tomb of King Muryeong

The entrance sealing bricks were removed, layer by layer, and when the opened space reached eye level, it was possible to see what lay within the dark tomb. After using a flash, a horned monster-like statue could be observed standing within. As the eyes of the excavation team adjusted to the darkness, the presence of two square brick tiles laid down in front of the statue, featuring a pile of coins, bronze vessels and spoons, and lugged ceramic vessels could be seen strewn near the tomb entrance. In the darkness of the burial chamber, behind the stone animal statue, a chaotic heap of wooden planks could be seen in the distance. With one glance, it could be ascertained that this had been the deceased’s coffin which had rotted and collapsed. The wall and ceiling surfaces of the burial chamber were overgrown with roots that had grown into the crevices between the bricks, resulting in a spooky atmosphere.

The excavation site soon became a place of chaos, as reporters and scholars who had heard that a new Baekje tomb had been discovered, as well as locals that had heard rumors, descended upon the site. The atmosphere and the tension at the site rose to a heightened state due to the reporters’ hopes for an exclusive and the anticipation of the locals. Even the police offcers, who had been brought in to control the premises, showed more interest in the excavation process than controlling the crowd.

The process of removing the bricks continued until the remaining height of the entrance sealing bricks reached kneelevel. At that point, Kim Won-yong, Director of the National Museum of Korea, and Kim Youngbae, Director of the Gongju National Museum, entered the tomb to survey the inner space. Twenty minutes later, they reappeared, answering the torrent of questions asked by the reporters. They stated that the tomb was the final resting place of King Sama (斯麻王) of Baekje, otherwise known as the twenty-fifth king of Baekje, King Muryeong, and his Queen Consort. They said this fact was established based on the contents of the stone epitaph plaques, and they confirmed that the tomb was entirely undisturbed.

Following these statements, a frenzy of excitement and shouting consumed the on-lookers, and chaos followed as researchers and reporters struggled to enter the tomb. Extra care was required in entering the tomb not only due to the artifacts and coffin fragments strewn around the burial chamber floor, but also because the dry roots that had covered the ceiling and the walls had also covered the floor, making it difficult to see what lay beneath. However, due to the adamant requests of the reporters, the excavation team had no choice but to let them in, albeit limitedly. The reporters entered through the tomb’s entrance, one by one, and took photos of the discovery. By the time the reporters had finished, the premises had calmed down, and it was possible to begin a full-fledged investigation of the burial chamber, as it had already become eight o’clock in the evening.


Fig. 5. Removal of the bricks used to seal off the entrance


Fig. 6. View of the tomb’s inner space

Excavation of the Tomb of King Muryeong

The excavation team conducted an emergency meeting to discuss the future direction of the investigation. It was eventually decided that, in order to contain the possible chaos that might arise during the investigation process, excavation of the tomb should be carried out as soon as possible. Records were made by taking photos and making drawings of, first of all, the artifacts found near the tomb entrance and corridor, and the remains of the wooden coffins spread out in the burial chamber. It was near ten o’clock at night when the drawings of the wooden coffin remains and the artifacts found on the tomb floor were finally completed. However, the excavation of the tomb continued around the clock as, at the time, there seemed to be no other option.

Upon completion of the drawings, the Chinese celadon wares, bronze bowls, bronze spoons, stone guardian animal statue, and the stone epitaph plaques found along the tomb corridor were the first artifacts to be taken out of the tomb. After the corridor had been cleared, the wooden coffin remains were wrapped up in a cotton cloth and taken directly to the Gongju National Museum. The removal of the wooden coffin remains revealed the presence of additional artifacts, and work began on the photographic recording and illustration of the artifacts in situ, as well as their removal. The excavation team was divided into two groups. Each group worked in tandem, recording and removing the artifacts where the King and Queen had respectively been laid to rest. The unearthed artifacts were taken out of the tomb one by one, where additional recording and cataloguing took place.

The rushed nature of the excavation meant that the illustrations were only made of the artifacts that could easily be seen. As a result, many of the not easily noticeable artifacts were inevitably overlooked and not recorded in situ through illustration. The removal of the artifacts had begun at midnight, and as it neared dawn, the excavation process sped up. After the larger artifacts had been recovered, the rest of the artifacts on the floor, along with the plant roots, were shoveled into sacks and taken out. This occurred around eight o’clock in the morning on July ninth, which meant that the excavation of the internal space of the burial chamber had finished within twelve hours.


Fig. 7. Members of the excavation team interpreting the text of the stone epitaph plaques


Fig. 8. The area of the tomb’s entrance surrounded by reporters

Had this been a properly organized excavation, a large-scale excavation team—consisting of various specialists—would have undertaken investigations of the internal space of the burial chamber over a period of several months. However, the excavation of the Tomb of King Muryeong, the most monumental example of funerary architecture not only in Baekje history, but also in Korean archaeology—and Korean history—was carried out over a single day due to the above-mentioned circumstances.

All the artifacts recovered from the tomb were sent to the National Museum of Korea on July fourteenth, one week after the excavation. This was met with fierce opposition from the residents of Gongju, and it was only after the promise was made that a new museum building would be constructed in order to house the artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong that the artifacts were allowed to be taken out of Gongju.

It is said that those people who had been involved in the excavation of the Tomb of King Muryeong later experienced large and small unfortunate incidents, such as automobile accidents, building collapse, bankruptcy, and the illnesses of family members requiring surgeries. Such continued bad fortune thus led some to believe that this was because the descendants had bothered the eternal sleep of the King. This demonstrates how those involved in the excavation were subjected to a lot of pressure, and how sacredly regarded the Tomb of King Muryeong was.

In 1973, the new wing of the Gongju National Museum, located opposite to where the Gongju Museum stood, was opened. This new building housed the artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong, which had been returned from the National Museum of Korea in Seoul after the excavation report had been published and conservation treatments had taken place. The newly opened museum became established as an institution specializing in the Tomb of King Muryeong, mainly exhibiting artifacts from the tomb. However, after around thirty years, the facilities became worn down, and the gradual increase of other excavated sites in Chungcheongnam-do Province resulted in a lack of space for exhibition and storage. A new building, four times the size of the previous museum building, was built and opened in May of 2004. The newly built Gongju National Museum exhibited not only the main artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong, but also artifacts that shed light on the ancient culture and Baekje culture (focusing on the Ungjin period) of the Chungcheongnam-do Province.


Fig. 9. Removal of the wooden coffin planks


Fig. 10. Making illustrations of the unearthed artifacts


Fig. 11. An epitaph plaque of King Muryeong

Research on the Tomb of King Muryeong

The King that Paved the Foundations for Baekje’s Renaissance

According to the text found on the stone epitaph plaques from the Tomb of King Muryeong, the King had passed away in 523, at the age of sixty-two. From this, it can be inferred that King Muryeong had been born in 461 or 462, in the seventh or eighth year of King Gaero’s reign. Records concerning the birth of King Muryeong can be found in the Samguk sagi (三國史記) and the Nihon shoki (日本書紀). It is recorded in the Samguk sagi that King Muryeong was “the second son of King Dongseong.” The Nihon shoki quotes the Baekje shinchan (百濟新撰), believed to be a Baekje historical text no longer extant, to say, “King Muryeong’s true name (諱) is King Sama (斯麻王) and he was the son of Prince Gonji (昆支王子) and the elder brother of King Dongseong, born from a different mother.” In this way, the accounts of King Muryeong’s genealogy and the context of his ascension to the Baekje throne presented in the two historical texts differ.

In referring to King Muryeong, the name “Sama” (斯麻) appears on the stone epitaph plaques, and the names “Sama” (斯摩) and “Yeoyung” (餘隆) are both used in the Samguk sagi. Although different Chinese characters are used in the stone epitaph plaques and the Samguk sagi, the name “Sama” refers to the same individual; it it is, therefore, clear that “Sama” was the name that had been used during King Muryeong’s lifetime. The name “Yeoyung” is likely to be a compound word of ”yeo” (餘), an abbreviation of “Buyeo” (扶餘), the last name used by Baekje royalty, and “yung” (隆), a special title that may have been used when interacting with China.


Fig. 12. The entrance of the Tomb of King Muryeong

At the point in time when King Muryeong ascended to the throne, Baekje was experiencing a period of continued chaos, following the relocation of the capital to Gongju due to Goguryeo’s attacks. The Baekje kings that were crowned after the capital’s relocation were continuously assassinated by the Baekje aristocrats, and the frequent power struggles with the aristocratic class had threatened royal authority. Upon inheriting the Baekje throne, King Muryeong quashed the rebellion of the aristocrats and brought the chaos to an end. In order to weaken the power of the aristocrats, the King dispatched them to regional areas as local governors and reclaimed royal authority. He opened the storage houses to provide for the populace and built embankments to provide new farmland so that the displaced people could settle down once again and become farmers. This way, he gained the support of the general population. Moreover, he successfully fended off Goguryeo attacks and stabilized the state’s boundaries, even managing to restart attacks against Goguryeo. As a result of these efforts, King Muryeong was able to proclaim in an official document sent in 516 to the Kingdom of Liang (梁) in China that Baekje had “overcome the difficulties brought about by Goguryeo and had become a strong state once again.” In addition, the cultural resurgence was achieved through close exchanges with China, thereby laying down the foundations for Baekje’s cultural revival.

King Muryeong was the only long-lived king of Baekje’s Ungjin period, ruling for twenty-two years before passing away in 523, at the age of sixty-two. The heir to his throne was King Seong, who is regarded as the greatest ruler of late Baekje.


Fig. 13. Burial chamber of the Tomb of King Muryeong (south wall)

Research on the Results of the Investigation of the Tomb of King Muryeong

Research on the Tomb of King Muryeong began with the discovery and excavation of the tomb in 1971 and the subsequent formation of a large-scale investigation group for the writing and publishing of the excavation report. The excavation report on the Tomb of King Muryeong was published in 1973, two years after the excavation took place. The report featured sections on the site location, the context of the discovery, the process of excavation, the outer and inner structure of the tomb, and the grave items (divided into personal ornaments, ritual equipment, and other grave goods). In addition, there were sections about the interpretation of the stone epitaph plaques, King Muryeong’s position in Baekje history, the relationship between Baekje and the Chinese mainland during the Ungjin period, Baekje society and culture, the structure of Baekje’s tombs, and the results of the scientific preservation undertaken on the excavated artifacts, all of which contributed to establishing the significance of the discovery of the Tomb of King Muryeong.


Fig. 14. Burial chamber of the Tomb of King Muryeong (north wall)

Although the excavation report on the Tomb of King Muryeong features the basic structure and contents expected of such a report, it was found to be lacking in terms of length or the quality of the contents. In particular, even taking into account the problems related to the excavation process, it cannot be denied that descriptions of the grave items are extremely brief, with only a few important examples of the approximately 5,200 artifacts recovered from the tomb having been presented in the report, and in some cases, the photographs and illustrations do not match, resulting in a lack of credibility. Nevertheless, the investigation of the Tomb of King Muryeong and the subsequent publication of the excavation report can be considered to have played a crucial role in bringing about an explosion of interest in Baekje history and Baekje culture.


Fig. 15. Lamp niche of the Tomb of King Muryeong

1. The Tomb and Funerary Rites

The tomb of King Muryeong is a brick chamber tomb that was constructed in exact imitation of the tombs used by the ruling class of Liang (梁), one of the Southern Dynasties of China. Bricks featuring lotus flower motifs and checked patterns that had been carefully fired were stacked to form the tomb structure, which was subsequently covered with a protective earthen mound. The tomb ceiling was barrel vault shaped, and the burial chamber had a narrow corridor leading out from one wall. These structural characteristics of the Tomb of King Muryeong are frequently compared to those of the tombs of the Southern Dynasties. Right after the tomb’s discovery, the overall research trend was to focus on the elements characteristic of Baekje (i.e., elements not seen in the tombs of the Southern Dynasties) that could be observed in the tomb architecture in order to present the distinctively Baekje nature of the Tomb of King Muryeong. Later on, researchers began to explore how the structure of the Tomb of King Muryeong fit into the overall scheme of Southern Dynasties tomb architecture typology. Based on this, efforts were made to establish the position of the Baekje kings in an international context and to clarify the relationship between Baekje and the Southern Dynasties.


Fig. 16. Lotus flower bricks used in the Tomb of King Muryeong

According to the stone epitaph plaques from the Tomb of King Muryeong, the King and his Queen Consort were laid to rest in a “great tomb” (大墓) twenty-seven months (in other words, around three years) after their death. During the time between the death and the final burial, the deceased were laid out in a temporary burial (殯葬). The rite of the temporary burial ended when the deceased was formally transferred to the final resting place—the royal tomb—on an auspicious date that had been carefully selected. A three-year mourning period (三年喪) is regarded as a very important stage in the Chinese funeral rituals of the Confucian tradition. The fact that King Muryeong was laid to rest in a temporary burial for around three years is frequently regarded as evidence that Baekje had adopted Confucian rituals. However, it should be noted that in case of the Chinese rites, commemoration took place for three years by wearing mourning clothes after the deceased had been buried in his or her final resting place and funerary rites had been completed. In Baekje, on the other hands, it was the temporary burial that took place over three years before the final interment in the royal tomb and the associated funerary rites were carried out. These differences indicate that, as can be evidenced by the case of the Tomb of King Muryeong, Baekje actively adjusted the Confucian funerary and burial rites that had been adopted from China to fit their own needs.

With the investigation of the Jeongjisan Mountain site in Gongju in 1996, which is believed to have been the place of temporary burial for King Muryeong and his Queen Consort, research on the burial and funerary rituals of the Baekje’s ruling elite in the Ungjin period experienced a new period of resurgence. The Jeongjisan Mountain site, located on a protrusion overlooking the Geumgang River at the northern end of the hill where the Tomb of King Muryeong also stands, was believed to be a special site (most likely a ritual site) from the earliest stages of excavation. This was due to the presence of numerous ritual-related artifacts, as well as the site structure and the distinctive layout of the buildings, in addition to its situation within the landscape. The findings of the excavation made it possible to suggest that the site may have been the location of the temporary burial of the King and Queen Consort mentioned in the stone epitaph plaques. These findings paved the way for interesting discussions on the reinterpretation of the stone epitaph plaque text, the likelihood that the temporary burial may have taken place elsewhere, and the possibility that a ritual altar might have existed within the Songsan-ri Burial Ground.


Fig. 17. Altar and vessels used in rituals placed within the burial chamber

2. Excavated Artifacts

The statue of an imaginary guardian animal was placed in the corridor leading to the burial chamber, and the stone epitaph plaques that contained information on the identity of the deceased were placed in front of it. Scattered in front of the stone epitaph plaques were bronze vessels that appear to have been used during the rites that took place prior to the closing off of the tomb entrance. The use of the imaginary guardian animal (known as jinmyosu) stone statue to protect the tomb and to guide the soul of the deceased to the land of the Gods derives from the Taoist worldview. The stone epitaph plaques also mention that the land whereupon the royal tomb was constructed had been purchased from the Land God, and Chinese iron wushu coins (五銖錢) were placed upon the plaques. This indicates that the stone epitaph plaques also functioned as the proof of land purchase. Due to the presence of the stone epitaph plaques, the Tomb of King Muryeong is the only tomb out of all of the Three Kingdoms period royal tombs identified thus far in which it is possible to establish the identity of the deceased. This makes the tomb a valuable resource for both archaeology and ancient history. In addition, since it is possible to establish the absolute dates for some of the excavated artifacts, the Tomb of King Muryeong has become an important chronological standard for research of the Three Kingdoms period.

The collapsed remains of the respective coffins of the King and Queen were found in the burial chamber, and beneath the coffin remains were the personal ornaments that had adorned the bodies of the deceased King and Queen.


Fig. 18. Silver cup with bronze stand


Fig. 19. Gold crown ornaments of King Muryeong


Fig. 20. Gold crown ornaments of the Queen Consort


Fig. 21. Reconstruction of the King’s wooden coffin


Fig. 22. Reconstruction of the Queen’s wooden coffin

Approximately 5,200 artifacts, representing 108 types of objects, were recovered from the Tomb of King Muryeong. Amongst them were exquisite personal ornaments that symbolized the authority of the King and Queen, as well as grave articles that were intended to ward off evil spirits. Examples of the former include gold crown ornaments, earrings, necklaces, gilded metal shoes, belt ornaments, bracelets with characters inscribed, jade objects, glass beads, and a sword with a dragon and phoenix decorated ring pommel. The bronze mirrors, black jade decorations, and glass child statues are believed to be examples of the latter. Of the artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong, seventeen were of such high quality that they were designated as National Treasures. In particular, the silver cup with bronze stand (銅托銀盞)—made for royal use—and other examples of fine metalware illustrate the exquisite nature of the production techniques of the time. This high-standard technology and the unique expressions of form demonstrate the true nature of the Baekje aesthetic that was distinct from that of the contemporaneous kingdoms of Goguryeo and Silla.

In addition to the above, the bronze vessels that were likely used as ritual vessels, the spoons, the chopsticks, and the headrests and footrests recovered from the tomb provide valuable information that can be used to ascertain the nature of everyday life in Baekje. Other excavated artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong have been used as important study materials in various research fields, such as Baekje crafts technology, crafts communities, units of measurement, laws and regulations, calendrical knowledge, ideology, names, and posthumous names.

In addition, recent developments in conservation made detailed investigation (even of the internal structure) of the artifacts possible using microscopes, infrared photography, CT-scanning, and X-ray photography. This has allowed active research on the production technology, chemical composition, patterns not visible to the naked eye, and provenance of the materials of the artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong to take place.

3. International Character

The international character of the architecture of the Tomb of King Muryeong and its artifacts was acknowledged soon after the tomb’s excavation and became a subject of keen interest. Much research has been carried out on associations with Silla and Gaya, within the Korean Peninsula, as well as with China and Japan.

The use of stone epitaph plaques, the proof of land purchase for the tomb, and a three-year period of mourning indicate that Confucian funerary rites from China had been adopted. The Chinese ceramic jars and bottles used during the rituals, the celadon cup used as an oil lamp, and the iron wushu coins also illustrate close links with China. The Chinese iron coins had been minted in the twelfth month of 523 and are believed to have been one of the items sent in a show of condolence from China. Research has been carried out on where the Chinese ceramics were crafted, the type of kiln in which they were fired, the time of their production, and how they went on to influence Baekje pottery production later on.

The long-handled iron, spoon and chopstick sets, and bronze vessels discovered at the Tomb of King Muryeong had not been previously observed at Baekje sites and therefore were understood to be imported items. The general opinion of the silver cup with bronze stand, on the other hand, which is considered to be a masterpiece, is that it was made in Baekje. This type of bronze saucer-shaped shallow bowl and cup and stand set went on to influence Japan and Gaya, where similarly shaped examples have been found.

It was revealed that the wooden coffin had been made using wood from the Japanese Umbrella Pine (金松, J. Koyamaki) that only grows in Japan’s southern region, thereby demonstrating the close relationship that existed between Baekje and Japan at the time. Other items from Japan were not identified at the Tomb of King Muryeong. The gilded metal shoes, gold crown ornaments, and metal vessels from this tomb are similar in form to many examples found in Japanese tombs; it is clear that the popular use of metal vessels in Japan was initiated by Baekje influences. Analysis has revealed that the thousands of glass beads from the Tomb of King Muryeong were mostly imported products. Research on their chemical composition indicates that they came from Southeast Asia. This has resulted in new efforts to interpret the significance of the Tomb of King Muryeong from a broader Asian perspective.

The Significance of the Tomb of King Muryeong

The Tomb of King Muryeong is the only example out of all of the royal tombs of the rulers of ancient Northeast Asia in which the identity of the deceased and the date of the tomb construction are known, the inner structure of the tomb has been fully investigated, and grave goods have been recovered entirely, with no disturbance by tomb robbers. Its discovery provided the impetus for heightened interest in Baekje history which, until then, had been a barren field of research. Interpretations on the tomb architecture and recovered artifacts, studies on Baekje history and culture in the era of the Tomb of King Muryeong, the ideology of the Baekje people, and the nature of the international relations at the time have all been fruitful in producing important research results. These findings have made contributions not only to Baekje history but also to our understanding of the history and culture of the kingdoms of China and Japan, as well as Silla and Gaya.


Fig. 23. Present-day view of the Tomb of King Muryeong and the Songsan-ri Burial Ground

It cannot be denied that the excavation process of the Tomb of King Muryeong was problematic, but certain aspects must be taken into consideration, such as the political context of the times and the limited nature of Korean archaeology’s infrastructure and personnel in the early 1970s. At the time, the number of archaeologists that had knowledge and experience with investigation and excavation of ancient tombs was very low. In addition, due to the fact that it was the first time that an excavation of that scale had taken place in South Korea, a manual providing the necessary guidelines for the organization and running of the excavation team, financial support, security measures, site preservation, and the removal and conservation of the artifacts was absent. However, the problems that arose during the process of excavation and self-critical reflection of the archaeological community that followed brought about key developments in Korean archaeology and South Korean cultural heritage policies. It was the experience of excavating the Tomb of King Muryeong that paved the way for the later systematic excavations of the Silla and Gaya royal tombs, as well as the associated conservation measures.

In 2015, the Songsan-ri Burial Ground, where the Tomb of King Muryeong is located, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with other burial grounds, fortress sites, and palace sites located within the boundaries of Baekje’s old capitals in Gongju, Buyeo, and Iksan, etc. The artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong played a key role in the successful designation of the Baekje Historic Areas as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an act whereby the historic importance, creativity, and cultural significance of the Baekje sites came to be acknowledged. In this way, forty-four years since its discovery, the Tomb of King Muryeong had become not only an important element of Korean heritage but also world heritage.

Selected Bibliography

Bureau of Cultural Property (문화재관리국). 1973. Tomb of King Muryeong: Excavation Report (무령왕릉: 발굴조사보고서). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2001. King Sama of Baekje (Special Exhibition Catalogue) (『백제 사마왕』 특별전시도록). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2005. Report on the Analysis of the Artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong I (무령왕릉 출토유물 분석보고서 I). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2006. Report on the Analysis of the Artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong II (무령왕릉 출토유물 분석보고서 II). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2007. Report on the Analysis of the Artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong III (무령왕릉 출토유물 분석보고서 III). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2008. Basic Materials Collection of the Tomb of King Muryeong (무령왕릉 기초자료집). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2009. New Report on the Tomb of King Muryeong I (무령왕릉 신보고서 I). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2010. Gongju National Museum Permanent Collection Catalogue (국립공주박물관 상설전시도록). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2011. Research on the Logic behind the Artifacts of the Tomb of King Muryeong (Special Exhibition Catalogue) (『무령왕릉을 격물하다』특별전시도록). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2012. Excavation of the Tomb of King Muryeong Seen through Photographs (사진으로 보는 무령왕릉 발굴). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2012. Basic Materials Collection of the Songsan-ri Burial Ground (송산리고분군 기초자료집). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2014a. New Report on the Tomb of King Muryeong II (무령왕릉 신보고서 II). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2014b. New Report on the Tomb of King Muryeong III (무령왕릉 신보고서 III). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2018. New Report on the Tomb of King Muryeong IV (무령왕릉 신보고서 IV). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Gongju National Museum (국립공주박물관). 2020. New Report on the Tomb of King Muryeong VI (무령왕릉 신보고서 VI). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Kang, Wonpyo (강원표). 2021a. “A Study on the Hierarchy of Songsan-ri Royal Cemetery of Baekje Based on Metal Fixtures and Fittings on Wooden Coffins” (목관 부속금구를 통한 백제 송산리고분군의 위계성 분석). Journal of the Hoseo Archaeological Society (湖西考古學) 49: 49–65.

Kang, Wonpyo (강원표). 2021b. “Regarding the Possibility of ‘Installation-style Coffin’ for the King Muryeong’s Mortuary Practice” (무령왕릉 장례과정에서 <설치식 관>의 검토). Journal of Baekje Studies (百濟學報) 38: 59–88.

Lee, Nam-Seok (이남석). 2011. “Examination of the Present Condition of Research on the Tomb of King Muryeong” (무령왕릉 연구현황 검토). In Research on the Logic behind the Artifacts of the Tomb of King Muryeong (Special Exhibition Catalogue) (『무령왕릉을 격물하다』특별전시도록). Gongju: Gongju National Museum.

Noh, Choong-Kook (노중국). 2020. “Present Condition of Research on the Tomb of King Muryeong” (백제 무령왕릉 연구현황). In Tomb of King Muryeong: Preparing for a New Half Century (무령왕릉: 새로운 반세기를 준비하며): 8–30. Gongju: Gongju City.

Park, Soon Bal (박순발). 2021. “The Archaeology of Tomb of King Muryeong” (무령왕릉의 고고학). In The Veiled Key to Baekje Archaeology: Songsan-ri Burial Ground of Gongju (베일에 싸인 백제사의 열쇠: 공주 송산리고분군). Gongju: Gongju City.

상단으로 이동