The Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology

Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology Vol. 16
Critical Review on the Metalworks in the Tomb of King Muryeong
Joo Kyeongmi

Chungnam National University

Journal of Korean Art & Archaeology 2022, Vol.16 pp.57-73


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The Tomb of King Muryeong (武寧王, r. 501–523) was accidentally discovered on the fifth of July 1971, during drainage work at the Songsan-ri royal tombs site in Gongju. As it is the only untouched royal tomb from the Baekje Kingdom and the sole identified tomb from the Three Kingdoms period, its cultural and historical importance are well known within the study of ancient Korean and East Asian history and culture. According to the inscriptions in the tomb, the tomb owners were identified as the Baekje royal couple—King Muryeong and his Queen Consort, who lived in the early sixth century CE. Construction of the tomb might have been concluded in 529 CE, when the Queen Consort was interred in the tomb, but there are uncertainties. The excavation itself, which was completed in only one day and night, and its excavation report published in 1973, had many mistakes (Bureau of Cultural Property 1973).

During the fifty years since this famous but regrettable excavation of the tomb, many scholars in Korea and East Asia have been studying the tomb’s structure and excavated artifacts. The excavated artifacts from the tomb were collected and are now displayed in the Gongju National Museum, which is the main research organization responsible for maintaining and studying the collection. Since 2005, the Gongju National Museum has conducted many scientific analyses and conservational research on the artifacts, then published annual reports with the latest findings (Gongju National Museum 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011a, 2013, 2014, 2018a, 2018b, 2019). In 2021, the museum plans to open a special exhibition on the Tomb of King Muryeong, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of its excavation. In this paper, I critically review the stylistic features and cultural significance of the metalworks found in the tomb, while taking into consideration previous studies and recent publications.1

Previous studies on the metalworks of the tomb in the 1970s were led mostly by Japanese scholars. They insisted that the greatest masterpieces discovered, such as the King’s sword and a silver cup with bronze stand, might have been made in Southern China and later presented to King Muryeong as an imperial gift from Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (Liang Wudi 梁武帝, r. 502–549). However, numerous subsequent archeological excavations in old Baekje territory, as well as in Southern China, revealed a different view on those artifacts. In fact, most of them were created in a unique style by master craftspeople of remarkable creative ability in Baekje territory. Many cultural characteristics of these artifacts reveal the diverse international relationships between Baekje and other contemporary states, such as Goguryeo, Silla, the Liang of South China, and the Northern Wei of North China. Among these foreign cultural influences, the new Buddhist art of Northern Wei in the Pingcheng period might be one of the most influential sources for the new artistic style and ideological background of these royal metalworks from Baekje.

Classification of the Metalworks in the Tomb of King Muryeong

According to the excavation report in 1973, the number of artifacts discovered in the Tomb of King Muryeong was 2,561, with eighty-eight types in total. However, reexamination by the Gongju National Museum changed the total number of the collection into 4,687 with 108 types (Gongju National Museum 2008, 4), and recently rechanged the total number of them into 5,232 with 124 types (Gongju National Museum 2021, 207). Changes in the amount and composition of the tomb collection were a result of conservation research conducted by the museum and may be further adjusted according to future research. Recently, metal objects comprising of 3,848 pieces of seventy-seven types were identified, accounting for approximately 70% of the total collection. In a previous study, Lee Hansang classified the metal objects into two basic groups: personal ornaments and decorative objects (Lee Hansang 2014, 45). However, they can be rearranged into many groups based on the classiflcation purpose. For example, by materiality, in situ location at the tomb site, or usage.

The most popular way to classify these artifacts is by materiality. This is also the primary method used for scientific preservation and conservation. The fundamental materials of the metalworks in this tomb are gold, silver, bronze, and iron (including steel), but there are many artifacts composed of mixed materials, including peculiar metal alloys and metal plating. The majority of the metalworks are small gold ornaments with unidentified usage, and only a few artifacts made of silver, bronze, and iron. However, it is important to understand that a mix of these metal materials was predominantly used in the production of the metalworks in the tomb. For example, the King’s sword (left of Fig. 15) comprises several assembled parts: a steel blade, a gilt-bronze ring-shaped pommel, a wooden handle decorated with gold and silver, and a decorative sheath. This indicates that the craftspeople who made this sword could work with more than five materials at a time. As in the case of several of the comma-shaped jade beads, gokok (曲玉), each main bead was made of green jade, but the fitted cap at the top was made of gold sheet and decorated with tiny gold granules and red cinnabar pigment (Gongju National Museum 2018a, 52–53). The King’s headrest and the footrest were made of wood covered with black-colored lacquer and decorated with gold sheet embellishments (Gongju National Museum 2011a, 40–41). As such high-quality artifacts were mostly for the King, the artifacts made of mixed materials with diverse and bright colors might have been a considerably more favored style for the royal couple’s prestige goods than simple gold or silver artifacts. The creators of these prestige goods required a high technical ability to utilize such a diverse range of natural materials and satisfy the colorful artistic tastes of the Baekje royalty. These artifacts made of mixed materials cannot be classified into any simple material categories and thus provide important evidence for the versatile abilities of Baekje craftspeople. Moreover, they seem to reflect a unique, hybrid taste of the Baekje royal families, which intricately mixed their original cultural traditions with international, artistic traditions from ancient Eurasia, such as the nomadic preference for polychrome-style gold ornaments, the ancient, traditional Han Chinese style, and the style of the newly adopted religion of Central Asian Buddhism.

The second way these artifacts are often classified is by their location at the tomb site. This classification centers on an understanding of the basic process of the funeral service and ritual, as well as the exact usage of the artifacts. Regarding the previous reports on the Tomb of King Muryeong, the metalworks discovered in the tomb can be divided into five groups according to their in situ locations (Fig. 1). The first group consists of metal vessels, spoons, chopsticks, metal nails, and coins found in the tomb entryway (羨道, K. yeondo). These artifacts may have been placed there for use in funeral rituals. The second group consists of metal vessels, metal nails, silver ornaments with black lacquer, and an iron spear with silver rim, which were discovered on the ground level in the main chamber. Both royal coffins were situated on the main floor or the platform found on the ground level in the main chamber. The third group consists of artifacts found in the coffin of King Muryeong. These include the King’s body ornaments, weapons, and two bronze mirrors. A pair of gold crown ornaments were found on the head of the King, as well as a gold hairpin, a pair of gold earrings, and a bronze mirror. On the King’s torso were many small beads made of gold, silver, glass, and other materials, which could be a part of his necklaces or chest ornaments. Sets of belt ornaments with pendants, a sword, and an ornamental knife were discovered around his waist. A pair of gilded metal shoes and another bronze mirror had been placed around his feet. The fourth group consists of artifacts found in the coffin of the Queen Consort. A bronze mirror and several metal vessels, including a silver cup with bronze stand (Fig. 27), were discovered around her head. She also had a pair of gold crown ornaments and a pair of gold earrings. She wore a pair of silver bracelets with inscriptions (see page 56) on her left wrist and a pair of gold bracelets on her right wrist. Around her waist were found many gold ornaments and an ornamental knife. On her feet, she wore a pair of tight silk shoes overlaid with a pair of bigger gilded metal shoes. To the left of her feet, there were a bronze long-handled iron, several small gold earrings, and bracelets. Unlike the King’s coffin, which had no vessels inside or nearby, the Queen Consort had several unique metal vessels inside or just near her coffin. The final in situ classification group consists of an assortment of silver ornaments with black lacquer that were laid outside the two coffins.


Fig. 1. Excavation Site Plan of the Metalcrafts in the Tomb of King Muryeong

However, the classification of these artifacts in terms of their actual usage is complicated, as some aspects of the usage remain unknown. Regarding the Queen’s silver bracelets with inscriptions, which were made in 520 CE when she was still alive, they might have been used as actual jewelry in her lifetime. Many of the gold and silver body ornaments of the royal couple might have been used in their lifetime, as with the bracelets. However, the gilded metal shoes of the royal couple were too big and impractical to have been worn on an everyday basis. Such metal shoes in Baekje might have been made and interred only in the tomb for the dead as ritual funerary objects. The reason and the underlying ideological background for this practice has not yet been determined. Although many disputes on the actual usage of these metalworks in the tombs of the Three Kingdoms period persist, the most common theory is that the majority of the gold body ornaments and metal vessels discovered in this tomb were used at some point in the owner’s lifetime.

Considering their usage and in situ locations, I will divide the metalworks of the tomb into four groups here: 1) personal body ornaments, 2) iron weapons, 3) bronze mirrors, and 4) metal vessels and other miscellaneous items, and then discuss their features and cultural significance.

Personal Body Ornaments

A lot of research on the personal body ornaments of the royal couple has been conducted by Korean and international scholars, especially the Japanese, since the excavation of the tomb. Notably, these body ornaments were discovered untouched in their exact locations. The royal couple shared a similar, but at the same time, unique style for their body ornaments. Both had a pair of gold crown ornaments, a pair of earrings, several sets of necklaces, belts with ornamental pendants, and a pair of gilded metal shoes. However, only the Queen wore bracelets on her wrists, and only the King possessed a gold hairpin and a sword. This difference might be due to the gendered costume culture in the Baekje period.

Most of these body ornaments are made of high-quality gold and silver. The Gongju National Museum published a scientific analysis report on sixty-four pieces of twenty-nine gold artifacts discovered in the tomb in 2007 (Choi Gieun and Yu Heisun 2007). The Museum continues to conduct scientific studies and 3D scanning projects on the gold and silver artifacts from the tomb (Gongju National Museum 2019). According to the analysis, the level of gold purity across body ornaments shows only minor differences; most contain a high proportion of gold with minute traces of silver and copper. The purity of the gold used to make the couple’s crown ornaments and earrings is highest (98%–99% gold), but the King’s gold hairpin is of lower purity (92%–94% gold) (Choi Gieun and Yu Heisun 2007). As the general information on these personal body ornaments has already been published in previous museum catalogues and studies, I will specifically focus on the four recently identified and debated arguments regarding these body ornaments.

The first argument concerns the different images of the gold crown ornaments and gold hairpin in older photos compared to their present condition (Figs. 27).2 Since unpublished images of the excavated artifacts in their original state in the tomb were not revealed until 2012 (Gongju National Museum 2012), the unidentified hidden facts of the tomb excavation and grave goods have only recently come under debate. Among various opinions on these artifacts, the original shape of the royal crown ornaments is the most controversial. The original images in the old photos more clearly reveal the crown ornaments were contoured with three-dimensional modeling, compared to their present flattened state. In addition to their total modeling, the pegs of the crown ornaments, which connect to the crown, were severely different from how they appear in their current flat state (Figs. 3 and 5). The most significant change occurred in the case of the King’s gold hairpin. In the old photo image, in its original state, the gold hairpin was bent in the shape of an “Γ” at the top (Fig. 7), but its present shape is a flattened sheet (Fig. 6).


Fig. 2. Gold crown ornaments of King Muryeong. Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold. H. 30.7 cm, W. 14.0 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 3. Original state of the gold crown ornament of King Muryeong during the excavation. Black and white photo. Taken in 1971. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 4. Gold crown ornaments of the Queen Consort. Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold and gold-plated copper. H. 22.2 cm, W. 13.4 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 5. Original state of the gold crown ornament of the Queen Consort during the excavation. Black and white photo. Taken in 1971. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 6. Gold hairpin of the King. Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold. L. 18.4 cm, W. 6.9 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 7. Original state of the gold hairpin during the excavation. Color photo. Taken in 1971. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

All five gold ornaments for the royal couple’s head decorations were made of gold sheets, mainly by the hammering technique. Among them, two pairs of gold crown ornaments have notably different body thicknesses (from 0.9 to 0.2 millimeters), with the thinnest part always at the top. Each of these four crown ornaments has a peg at the bottom, and the peg of the King’s crown ornament is a part of the same base gold sheet. However, the peg of the Queen’s crown ornament (now broken and rusted green) is made of a pure copper sheet plated with gold and was attached to the gold sheet crown ornament using small copper nails (Choi Gieun and Yu Heisun 2007, 156–157). The last and sole hairpin of the King was made of one gold ingot using the hammering and repoussé techniques. The upper part was hammered into a very thin plate in the shape of a bird’s wing, but the lower and thickest parts were divided into three legs, much like a pronged stick. The thickest part is 1.8 millimeters and the thinnest is 0.25 millimeters. Considering the embossed surface decorations with the chasing and repoussé technique, the original shape of the hairpin might be close to the bent image in the old photo (Fig. 7). The present condition in a flat sheet (Fig. 6) might have been wrongly modified and repaired by the modern excavators. As these four gold crown ornaments and a hairpin were manufactured by the hammering technique, the ancient craftspeople could have fashioned them in an adequate three-dimensional modeling and thickness for proper use and artistic expression. However, modern modification of these gold ornaments into a flat sheet image damaged the original artistic intentions and forms. Unfortunately, the exact reasons and processes of such modern modification of these gold ornaments have not been determined yet. Originally, the royal crowns might have been made of fabric or other organic materials, now corrupted or absent due to natural degradation over time, and several gold ornaments found nearby might have been attached together to the surface of the crown. Although there are many reconstruction models of the Baekje royal crowns, their exact shape remains unknown. There is a need for a new reconstruction model of the royal crowns, considering the original bent and three-dimensional state of these five gold head ornaments.

The second argument concerns the design motifs and manufacturing techniques of the four gold crown ornaments. The basic manufacturing technique is hammering and cutting with hammers and chisels. All four of the sheet ornaments represent a flame-like flower motif, but all of them differ slightly in size and shape. In previous studies, scholars have vaguely argued that a pair of crown ornaments might have been made by one particular craftsperson. However, the detailed tool traces, size, and shape of these gold crown ornaments reveal some differences, even in the case of a pair. It means that each ornament of the pair might have been made separately by different manufacturers, presumably by at least two craftspeople with different abilities. The deformation of the original design of the pair could be caused by the fact that one main design motif was shared with two or more craftspeople.

The main motif of the four crown ornaments is a flame-like flower consisting of palmette leaves and lotus flowers, which originated in the Near East and Central Asia (Lee Song-ran 2019). However, the King and Queen’s ornaments reveal slightly different designs and techniques. The King’s crown ornaments have a dynamic asymmetrical design and were decorated with multiple small, round gold spangles (Fig. 2). However, there are no spangles on the Queen’s crown ornaments, which have a balanced symmetrical design (Fig. 4). The King’s ornaments are more decorative than the Queen's. Moreover, the craftsperson who made one of the King’s crown ornaments tried to decorate it with dotted lines at the rims with a sharp pointed chasing tool, but the trial was ceased, with only a few traces visible on a minor section in one sheet (Fig. 8). Since the gold base sheet is too thin to be chased with a tool, the craftsperson might have decided not to proceed with the dotted decoration at the rims to avoid wrinkling the base sheet.


Fig. 8. Dotted line pattern. Detail of a gold crown ornament of King Muryeong (Fig. 2). Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

The pair of the Queen’s crown ornaments shows a symmetrical, flower-like design consisting of a blooming lotus in a vase or “Badra kumbha” (an ancient Indian religious motif of a miracle vase or a bottle) on a lotus flower-patterned pedestal, surrounded by palmette leaves (Fig. 4). Scholars have noticed that the motif of the Queen’s crown ornament might be the Buddhist motif related to the ideology of rebirth in the lotus flower (蓮花化生, K. Yeonhwa hwasaeng) (Lee Song-ran 2019). However, the design of the King’s crown ornaments is much more controversial than that of the Queen’s. The entire theme of his ornaments is an asymmetrical, flame-like flower consisting of a lotus flower at the top center surrounded by palmette leaves. There are two strange puffy narrow cloud-like motifs under the central lotus flower (Fig. 9). While there have been debates on the iconography of these two puffy motifs, they can be identified as two bunches of grapes (Hayashi 1978, 99). I discovered many incised lines made during the sketching of the pattern remaining on the surface of the King’s crown ornaments, and, indeed, the wavy traces in the puffy motifs seem to resemble grapes (Fig. 9). In previous art historical studies in Korea, the grape pattern was thought to have been introduced to Korea during the Unified Silla period under the influence of the global artistic style of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. However, the grape pattern first reached China through the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty, and the most important grape motif comparable to King Muryeong’s period is the representation at Cave No. 8 of the Yungang (雲岡) grottoes in Datong (大同), China, which was built in the late fifth century CE, sponsored by the Northern Wei royal families. In this cave, the guardian deity, Shiva, was carved in the entrance wall, sitting on a bull and holding a bunch of grapes (Fig. 10). In addition to this guardian’s attribute image of grapes, there are several decorative patterns consisting of palmette and grape-vines on the door jambs in several Yungang grottoes. The grape pattern with a puffy shape and lotus flower motifs seen on King Muryeong’s gold ornaments might be a symbolic icon of the new Buddhist culture and ideology that arrived in Baekje from the Northern Wei. In addition, it is noteworthy that this is the first representation of grapes in Korean art history


Fig. 9. Sketch of the grape. Detail of a gold crown ornament of King Muryeong (Fig. 2). Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 10. Shiva holding a bunch of grapes. Northern Wei, 5th century CE. Cave 8 at Yungang Buddhist Grotto. Datong City, Shanxi Province, China

The third argument concerns the manufacturing technique of Queen Consort’s silver bracelets (Gongju National Museum 2011a, 55–57). The bracelets have long inscriptions engraved on the inner surface, recording that they were made for the Queen in the year of Gyeongja (庚子), or 520 CE, by Dari (多利), the only known, famous master craftsperson from the Three Kingdoms period. Since the Queen died in 526 CE, she might have worn this pair of bracelets in her lifetime, then kept them in the tomb as prestige goods for her next life. The bracelets were made using the lost-wax casting technique, with the images of two dragons on each piece. The detailed eyes and scales of the dragons might have been carved in the original wax model (Fig. 11). However, some detailed spots of the bracelets show melting and repair traces after the casting process (Fig. 12). It is important to note that the lost-wax casting technique and the representation of the dragons on these bracelets are very similar to the gilt-bronze ring pommel of the King’s sword (Lee Hansang 2020) (Fig. 15). Therefore, we can presume that the manufacturer of the Queen’s silver bracelets and the King’s sword could have been the same person, or they were craftspeople in the same workshop.


Fig. 11. Dragon's head on the Queen's silver bracelet. Baekje, 520 CE. Silver. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 12. Melted and repaired part of the Queen's silver bracelet. Baekje, 520 CE. Silver. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

The fourth argument concerns the design motif and manufacturing technique of the gilded metal shoes of the royal couple.3 Since scientific research on these shoes has not yet been completed, and their several previous descriptions create confusion on account of errors, research on these shoes still has many limitations. During the scientific research and conservation on the Queen’s shoes, scientists in the museum discovered silk shoes made of several layers of textiles inside the metal shoes (Gongju National Museum 2011a, 102–103). This means that the metal shoes were made only for the dead or for funeral rituals. However, the cultural meaning of the gilded metal shoes in Baekje royal tombs has not yet been identified. From the viewpoint of manufacturing techniques, the shoes of the royal couple are the only examples made from double-layer metal sheets, in contrast to other gilded metal shoes of Baekje, which are all made from a single-layer metal sheets. The King’s shoes are comprised of inner silver sheets and outer gold-plated copper sheets (Gongju National Museum 2018b, 104–105). The Queen’s shoes are made of double-layer, gold-plated copper sheets (Gongju National Museum 2018b, 120–121).

The main decorative motif of these shoes is a repeated hexagon pattern. In previous studies, there have been many disputes regarding the meaning of this repeated hexagon pattern, identifying it as a tortoiseshell pattern (Joo Kyeongmi 2013b), a honeycomb pattern, or an expression of the ideal heaven. The exact meaning of this pattern remains uncertain and controversial, but the pattern might have come to Northern Wei, Goguryeo, and Baekje from Western and Central Asia (Lee Song-ran 2012). A phoenix or a flower with diverse shapes as an openwork decoration is represented inside each hexagon unit of the Queen’s shoes (Fig. 13). Some parts of the flower shape and the rims of each hexagon in the King’s shoes have been decorated by embossing or chasing techniques, together with a simple openwork technique (Fig. 14). At the bottom of the shoes, we can see several spikes and a few eroded spangles in the shape of a fish (Lee Hansang 2011). As both shoes of the royal couple are still in poor condition with thick, greenish rust, the Gongju National Museum continues working on their preservation and conservation.


Fig. 13. A phoenix in a hexagon pattern. Detail of the gilded metal shoes of the Queen Consort. Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold-plated copper. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 14. Phoenixes and flowers in hexagon patterns. Detail of the gilded metal shoes of the King. Baekje, 6th century CE. Gold-plated copper. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

Iron Weapons

Only a few pieces of iron weaponry and no iron horse harnesses were discovered in this royal tomb. This is a very unusual case compared to the contemporary tombs of Silla and Gaya in the Three Kingdoms period. In total, only six examples of iron weaponry were discovered, and all were decorated with gold and silver wires and sheets. The most important one is the King’s sword with ring pommel, laid to the left of his waist (left of Fig. 15). Along with this sword, the King had a small, ornamental knife (right of Fig. 15). The Queen Consort had three small ornamental knives, all of which were decorated with gold and silver wires and sheets (Fig. 16). The last item is an iron spear with a silver rim, discovered on the ground level in the main chamber. The reason for the small amount of weaponry and lack of horse gear in this royal tomb is uncertain, but it might arise from the ideological changes in the worldview of the royal family of Baekje, which transformed from traditionalism in ancient East Asia to the newly adopted Central Asian Buddhism.


Fig. 15. A sword with ring pommel and an ornamental knife of the King. Baekje, 6th century CE. Mixed materials: iron, gilt-bronze, gold, silver, etc. L. 82.0 cm (sword), L. 25.5 cm (knife). Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 16. Ornamental knives of the Queen Consort. Baekje, 6th century CE. Mixed materials: iron, gold, silver, etc. L. 16.5–25.5 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

Although only a small quantity of weaponry was found in this royal tomb, these rare examples show the highest quality of metalcraft techniques. Among them, the King’s sword is the most important and luxurious example of his prestige goods. This kind of sword with ring pommel is typical for the Three Kingdoms period but reveals the most exquisite manufacturing techniques and the finest artistic modeling among the remaining examples preserved from that time. As aforementioned, this sword is made of diverse materials using various techniques. The ring pommel at the top, representing three dragons, was made of gilt-bronze by the lost-wax casting technique (Lee Hansang 2006). The lost-wax casting and the dragon representation in this round pommel are very similar to the silver bracelets of the Queen Consort. The hilt, originally made of wood and now decayed, is fully decorated with gold and silver sheets, wires, and tiny granules. The upper and lower parts display a band of silver openwork phoenixes, each within a hexagon pattern, on a gold sheet decorated with a zigzag pattern created by the gold granulation technique (Fig. 17). The space between both decorative end parts is fully and densely covered with gold and silver beaded wires.


Fig. 17. Detail of the sword with ring pommel of the King (left of the Fig. 15). Baekje, 6th century CE. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

Of most importance for understanding the high technical achievement of the Baekje craftspeople is the incised circular expression of the phoenix’s eyes and the cornerstones of the hexagon pattern. These were crafted using a new chasing tool called nukkaljeong (누깔정), or “fish-roe pattern tool” (魚子文 정, K. eojamunjeong), made of steel in order to mark these tiny, incised circles. In many previous studies, the fish-roe pattern tool was identified to have been transported during the late seventh century CE, first from Sasanid Persia to Tang China, and then to Unified Silla in Korea. However, prior to this, the tool had already been used in ancient Xiongnu and Han Chinese gold works (Joo Kyeongmi 2011). Out of the kingdoms of ancient Korea, the craftspeople in Baekje were the first masters who crafted and used this tool. The so-called “fish-roe pattern technique” is a type of chasing and repoussé technique, and it might have been brought to Baekje in Korea during or before the late fifth century CE.

This fish-roe pattern technique was also used in the gilded metal shoes from Bongdeok-ri Tomb No. 1 in the Gochang region, which was excavated in 2009 (Fig. 18). Traces of this tool can be found in the eyes of intercrossed twin birds in the Bongdeok-ri metal shoes (Lee Munhyung 2015). The Bongdeok-ri Tomb No. 1 and the shoes are estimated to be from the fifth century CE, which predates the Tomb of King Muryeong. The craftsperson who made the shoes used more than two tools of different diameters (0.9 millimeters and 1.4 millimeters). As in the case of King Muryeong’s sword, the diameter of the tool for the phoenix’s eye was 1.2 millimeters. These are the earliest examples of the usage of the fish-roe pattern technique in Korea. During the seventh century CE, the craftspeople in Baekje came to express a ring-mat pattern, fully filling tiny, incised circles using the same fish-row pattern tool as the background of the main design, which shows the stylistic transition of the same tool’s usage.


Fig. 18. Detail of the gilded metal shoes. Baekje, 5th century CE. Gold-plated copper. Bongdeok-ri Tomb No. 1, Gochang, Jeollabuk-do Province. Jeonju National Museum

The other important decoration technique on the King’s sword is the combination of the gold granulation technique and the red cinnabar filling technique in the zigzag pattern of the hilt (Fig. 17). Such color and material combinations are also found on the gold earrings and the ornamental gold knife of the King (Choe Kieun 2014). This technique might have been acquired from ancient Nangnang and applied to Baekje royal goldwork (Joo Kyeongmi 2013b, 2017; Yu Heisun and Ro Jihyun 2020). In 2019, a small gold ornament with a similar decorative technique and style was excavated in Western Tomb No. 2 of Neungsan-ri site in the Buyeo region (Seo Hyun-ju and Lee Sol-eon 2019). This means that such goldwork techniques continued on as the royal goldwork style into the later Baekje period. These unique decorative techniques mentioned above represent the high technical skill and excellent representational artistic style of Baekje royal craftspeople.

Bronze Mirrors

Three round bronze mirrors were excavated in the Tomb of King Muryeong. As all of them have stylistic similarities with the Han Chinese mirrors, it has been thought that all were made in China and transported to Baekje. However, it is very difficult to identify their exact manufacturing location because the mirrors could have been repeatedly made as new ones by casting technique with the copied mold of the original mirrors from other regions since an earlier time period. Since several mirrors of the same style have been excavated in ancient sites in Japan, some scholars have even insisted that these mirrors might have been made in Japan, not in China.

Although all three mirrors were made by the bronze casting technique, location where they were found, size, and surface patterns differ. The King had two mirrors, one at his head and another at his feet, while the Queen Consort had only one mirror at her head. Among them, the two mirrors of the King have inscriptions written in Chinese characters, which appear on the typical bronze mirrors of the Han Dynasty. However, the contents of the inscriptions are common wishing phrases with no dates or a specific manufacturer’s name. At the center of each mirror, there is a large round knob with a hole. Around the central knob, the surface design of all three mirrors can be roughly divided into three sections: the center, the middle, and the border. All three sections exhibit different decorative patterns and images. The outermost border section has only simple decorative patterns, such as a zigzag pattern and unidentified curvy line patterns. The center and middle sections have different decorations, with Chinese characters placed in those areas. The two mirrors at the royal couple’s heads (Figs. 19 and 20) share some stylistic similarities in that the center sections have nine small, decorative knobs, and the middle sections represent seven auspicious animals with seven decorative knobs. However, the mirror at the King’s feet is different from the other two mirrors. It has a unique square center section with twelve decorative knobs and a middle section with new images different from the traditional “TLV” patterns of Han Chinese mirrors (Fig. 21).4

The bronze mirror at the King’s head has three Chinese characters, “ui” (宜), “ja” (子), and “son” (孫), in the central section between the nine decorative knobs (Fig. 19). The three Chinese characters make up a favorable phrase wishing for the prosperity of the descendant. In the middle section, there are seven decorative knobs and seven auspicious animals, but the iconography of the animals is not fully identified due to severe erosion of the surface. The diameter of this mirror is 23.2 centimeters, making it the largest of the three. Bronze mirrors of similar size and decorative patterns have also been excavated in Japan. The most similar one was a bronze mirror excavated at Kannonyama (觀音山) tomb site in the Gunma (群馬) region, dating to the early seventh century CE, slightly later than the Tomb of King Muryeong (Oda 1991; Gunma Prefectural Historical Museum 2020). Recently, a bronze mirror stylistically resembling the one discovered at King Muryeong’s head was excavated at Tomb No. 32 of the Yugok-ri (酉谷里) and Durak-ri (斗洛里) tomb sites in Namwon (南原), Korea (Jeonbuk National University Museum 2015, 104–107). This mirror, 17.45 centimeters in diameter, is smaller than that of King Muryeong’s. However, it was also placed at the tomb owner’s head, similar to the royal couple. Tomb No. 32 in Namwon was constructed in the late fifth century CE, which predates the Tomb of King Muryeong. This means that the King’s mirror found at his head could be a legacy of the old funeral tradition in Baekje. It could not be of Southern Chinese influence or imported because no similar style mirror has yet been found in contemporary Chinese tombs.


Fig. 19. Bronze mirror at the King’s head. Baekje, 5–6th century CE. Bronze. D. 23.2 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

The bronze mirror at the Queen’s head (Fig. 20) has a similar composition to the mirror placed near the King’s head but is smaller in size. The diameter of this mirror is 18.1 centimeters, and there are no Chinese characters inscribed. The representation of the animals in these two mirrors has some stylistic differences. Although several scholars insist that this mirror resembles the contemporary Japanese bronze mirrors, the exact representation style of the animal patterns and their sequence are significantly different from other Japanese and Chinese mirrors of that time. According to the linear style of the animals and several subtle brush stroke traces on the surface, this mirror could have been made by the lost-wax casting technique. However, further scientific research and analysis are required to confirm this supposition.


Fig. 20. Bronze mirror at the Queen Consort’s head. Baekje, 5–6th century CE. Bronze. D. 18.1 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

The most important bronze mirror of this royal tomb is the one found at the King’s feet (Fig. 21). Since this mirror has the famous, old “TLV” pattern and the Chinese inscriptions of Han Chinese mirrors on the surface, most scholars have thought that this mirror might have come from China, having been bestowed to King Muryeong of Baekje by the Chinese Emperor. However, I would like to argue with the previous studies, which have ignored the five voluminous, unique relief images represented on the “TLV” pattern surface, erasing some original Chinese characters and the typical “TLV” patterns. These five relief images have been added to the old model of “TLV” mirror patterns, creating a new image of the contemporary Baekje world. The most important to note is the deliberate erasing of the Chinese character “seon” (仙, Ch. xian) near a deer in the middle section (Fig. 24). The character and its next character “in” (人, Ch. ren) mean “the hermit” of Taoism, but the manufacturer intentionally erased the character meaning “hermit” during the wax modeling process. This means that the manufacturer understood the original meaning of the Chinese characters in the mirror decoration and deliberately transformed it for his or her own purpose. This change could be related to King Muryeong and his Queen Consort’s ideological change to Buddhism.


Fig. 21. Bronze mirror at the King’s feet. Baekje, 6th century CE. Bronze. D. 17.8 cm. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

The most unique image among the five additional high reliefs in this mirror is a male hunter holding an eccentric two-pronged spear at the top center (Fig. 22). He wears only a “satba” (샅바), a kind of traditional Korean loincloth, which frequently appears in the mural paintings in Goguryeo. With a traditional Korean topknot, “sangtu” (상투), on the top of his head, he represents a flying warrior who is going to fight with the tiger facing him. The tiger, its long tail outstretched, is also poised to fight with him (Fig. 23). Similar hunting scenes were frequently represented in the mural paintings of the Goguryeo tombs. The hunter image is also similar to the tomb guardians on the front door of the Goguryeo tombs (Jeon Ho-tae 2018). Therefore, these additional images can be identified as a representation of a traditional hunting scene in ancient Korea. Three more animals are following behind the tiger. They are a female deer (Fig. 24), a dog, and a fantastic animal (Fig. 25). Among them, the iconographic identification of the last odd animal is uncertain. It has four legs, a horn with wavy form, and a forked tail (Fig. 25). However, the unique wavy horn is reminiscent of the stone guardian animal with an eccentric wavy horn made of iron, which stood at the front of the entryway of the Tomb of King Muryeong (Gongju National Museum 2018b, 84–87; 2018c). Therefore, this animal could be regarded as a more figurative representation of a tomb guardian animal in Baekje. Since it is standing with its back turned to the hunter, this fantastic guardian animal seems to support the hunter together with the dog, rather than fighting with him. Thus, only the tiger and the female deer are the prey animals in this hunting scene. Regarding the existence of the guardian-like hunter and the guardian animal image, this hunting scene can be interpreted as a ritual hunting scene or as guardian images for the deceased King.


Fig. 22. Hunter. Detail of the bronze mirror at the King’s feet (Fig. 21). Baekje, 6th century CE. Bronze. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 23. Tiger. Detail of the bronze mirror at the King’s feet (Fig. 21). Baekje, 6th century CE. Bronze. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 24. Deer. Detail of the bronze mirror at the King’s feet (Fig. 21). Baekje, 6th century CE. Bronze. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 25. Fantastic animal or tomb guardian. Detail of the bronze mirror at the King’s feet (Fig. 21). Baekje, 6th century CE. Bronze. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

It is interesting to note that these images remind us of the front guardian images at the Buddhist Caves at Yungang, dated to the Northern Wei period. A similar iconography of a hunter or a fantastic animal can be found on the entranceway walls of the sacred shrine in these caves (Fig. 26). These Buddhist, but foreign images in Yungang Caves frequently appear in Caves Nos. 7 to 12, which were constructed during the late fifth century CE. In these caves, the newly adopted Buddhist or Central Asian iconographies and the traditional Chinese or East Asian iconographies, such as dragons and phoenixes, were mixed together to represent the new Buddhist ideal world at the time. This new but traditional hybrid world imagery in North Chinese Buddhism might have influenced contemporary Goguryeo and Baekje. The manufacturers of the metalworks found in the Tomb of King Muryeong might have recognized such new Buddhist blended iconographies or representations. In addition, they creatively transformed these images to match the traditional royal art and funeral rituals of Baekje.


Fig. 26. The front door of Cave 9 at Yungang Buddhist Grotto. Datong City, Shanxi Province, China. Northern Wei, 5th century CE

These five unique but important high-relief images on this mirror have not been researched before, and it is noteworthy that this representation of additional images can be found only on this mirror. The unique combination of the old “TLV” pattern and the new, high-relief images was a result of a highly sophisticated wax modeling technique and the proactive creativity of the Baekje craftspeople. Considering the abundant use of the mixed pattern modeling style, this mirror might have been made by the lost-wax casting technique that was used in other metalworks found in the same tomb. Seeing these metalworks in the Tomb of King Muryeong, there is no doubt that the lost-wax casting technique was fully utilized by Baekje royal craftspeople during the early sixth century CE. This mirror with high relief must have been made in Baekje, combining the older Han Chinese “TLV” mirror pattern and the new Buddhist and funeral imagery of the Northern Wei and Goguryeo by a newly perfected high-tech casting technique.

Metal Vessels and Other Miscellaneous Items

Most of the metal vessels in King Muryeong’s Tomb were made of bronze. However, one silver cup with silver lid and bronze stand was made of mixed materials such as silver, gold, and bronze (Fig. 27). This silver cup with bronze stand is known for its engraved and chased line drawings on the surface. The iconography of this cup was identified in a previous study (Joo Kyeongmi 2006). On the lid of the silver cup, auspicious animals are represented along with the outline of four mountains. The knob at the top of the lid was made in a lotus bud shape, and the decorative patterns of the upper part of the lid represent a lotus flower. On the body of the cup, there are three flying dragons portrayed in a similar style to the dragons on the silver bracelets and the ring pommel of the King’s sword. These incised images were represented using several chasing tools. Among them, there is a unique chasing tool creating a double-dots pattern, or “ssangjeom-mun” (雙點文), which was used only by Baekje craftsmen (Fig. 28). However, it is interesting to note that the craftsperson who made this cup also ceased to chase the double-dots pattern at the bottom of the cup, likely because the spots were invisible and nonessential to the decoration. There are several auspicious and fantastic animals portrayed on the bronze stand of this cup, including a dragon and a human-faced bird. The whole design of this cup is one of the most important ancient artworks from Baekje, and it serves as a precedent to the masterpiece of the famous, gilt-bronze incense burner of Baekje that was excavated at the Neungsan-ri Temple Site in Buyeo (Korean Foundation 2006).


Fig. 27. Silver cup with bronze stand. Baekje, 6th century CE. Mixed materials: silver, gold, and high-tin bronze. H. 15.0 cm (total). D. 14.7 cm (stand). Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju


Fig. 28. Double-dots pattern. Detail of the silver cup with bronze stand (Fig. 27). Baekje, 6th century CE. Silver. Tomb of King Muryeong, Gongju

Scientists at the Gongju National Museum have conducted an analysis of the silver cup with bronze stand recently. According to the report, the top gold lotus flower decoration consists of a metal alloy comprising 88% gold, 10% silver, and a small amount of copper. The most important analysis result is on the materiality of the bronze stand, which consists of 78% copper and 22% tin (Gongju National Museum 2019, 192). This metal alloy component is the same as the Korean traditional metal alloy of high-tin bronze, called “yugi” (鍮器), or “notgeureut” (놋그릇) in Korean and “sahari” (響銅/佐波理) in Japanese (Ahn Kui Sook 2002). In previous studies, it was presumed that the traditional Korean high-tin bronze had not been used before the Unified Silla period. However, the metal alloy analysis of this stand reveals that the material was already common during the early sixth century CE in Baekje. This silver cup with bronze stand is identified as the earliest example of a Korean traditional high-tin bronze with the exact date known. The tradition of the high-tin bronze manufacturing technique is still handed down to the present and is now designated as a national intangible heritage in Korea.

Many other metalworks have been discovered in the Tomb of King Muryeong, but we are still waiting for more detailed scientific research. Some were used for decorating the wooden coffin or the royal couple’s body or attire. Although there are several imported metal artifacts, such as iron coins and a bronze long-handled iron from the Liang Dynasty in Southern China, most of the metal artifacts in the tomb were made in Baekje, revealing the high technical ability and creative artistic style of the Baekje craftspeople.


In this paper, I briefly and critically reviewed the major metal artifacts found in the Tomb of King Muryeong of Baekje, taking into consideration recent scientific research and new archeological evidence in Korea. Most of these metalworks were crafted in the early sixth century CE and represent the most prestigious and luxurious artifacts of the royal couple. Among them, the most representative is the King’s sword, which shows the highest level of technical and stylistic skill, with the most diverse prestige materials involved in its creation. The ring pommel of the sword with dragons has stylistic and technical affinity with the silver bracelets of the Queen Consort, which were made in 520 CE by the master craftsperson, Dari. Dari might be the representative master of all-metal craftspeople in Baekje or a great expert on the exquisite lost-wax casting technique, as well as diverse chasing and engraving techniques. Under Dari’s guidance, the metalcrafts in Baekje developed at the highest level utilizing diverse mixed materials and creative technical processes.

In previous studies on the metalworks in King Muryeong’s Tomb, many scholars presumed that most of the masterpieces were imports or imperial grants from Southern China and Chinese Taoism. However, the technical and iconographical analysis of these metalworks reveals diverse international relationships and cultural hybridity between Baekje and other countries, such as Goguryeo and the Northern Wei. The grape, palmette, and lotus patterns in the gold crown ornaments of the royal couple are the most important visual evidence of Buddhist ideology from Central Asia and the Northern Wei. However, traditional Han Chinese stylistic features were found in the bronze mirrors of this tomb as well. The gilded metal shoes and sword with ring pommel might be representatives of an ancient tradition of Baekje or ancient Korea. In addition, the iconography of the bronze mirror at the King’s feet represents the old, but at the same time, a completely new vision of the world and worldly guardians of ancient Baekje.

Baekje culture under King Muryeong in the early sixth century CE has to be reconsidered as an international blend under the new Buddhist ideology. The metalworks from the tomb reveal a complex mixture of several ancient East Asian traditions and new Central Asian Buddhist culture from that time. Moreover, they represent the high level of technology of the metalsmiths and creative artistic styles of the Baekje royal craftspeople. Accordingly, this new visual evidence from the Tomb of King Muryeong must be reexamined under the wider view of the transitional East Asian history in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, combined with more careful scientific analysis. The most important cultural significance of the metal artifacts found in the tomb is the internationalism and creative adoption of all foreign cultures, including artistic styles and techniques.



Three English catalogues and one English article on the artifacts from the Tomb of King Muryeong and his Queen Consort have been published for English readers. See: Gongju National Museum (2011b), Lee Hansang (2014), and National Museum of Korea (2017; 2020).


These gold crown ornaments have been wrongly called “gold diadem ornaments” in several previous studies, but the original usage of these ornaments was the decoration of the “royal crown” in Baekje. In the case of these royal crowns in the Three Kingdoms period in ancient Korea, the term “crown” is generally accepted in academic world, instead of the term “diadem,” which was prevalent in the ancient Western style


Although the terms “gilt-bronze shoes” and “decorated shoes” were widely used in previous studies, the actual material of those metal shoes was not identified as bronze by recent scientific research. Most metal shoes in Baekje were made of copper with gold plating. In case of King Muryeong’s shoes, they were made of mixed materials, comprising gold-plated copper and silver sheets. Therefore, here I use the term “gilded metal shoes (or decorative metal shoes)” as the more accurate expressions.


For the meaning of the “TLV” pattern of Han Chinese mirrors, see Schuyler (1948).

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