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I am greatly enjoying watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea…although thus far I am a bit underwhelmed by the United States performance overall.  Is our precipitous national decline already reflected in international sports, or are the Norwegians, Austrians, Canadians, and other hearty winter folk just having a good Olympics?  Only time will tell.

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At any rate, to celebrate the Korean Olympics (and put the ups-and-downs of history in perspective) I would like to feature a great treasure of South Korea in today’s post.  This is the gold crown of Seobongchong Tumulus, a spectacular gold Silla crown now housed at the Gyeongju National Museum. Gyeongju was the royal capital of the Korean kingdom of Silla which flourished from the mid first century BC to the eight century AD.  These crowns date from the fifth through seventh centuries. The exact nature of the crowns is unknown: ethnographers believe the magnificent shamanistic forms reflect a steppe influence (perhaps from Persia/Iran) but much about these crowns remains a mystery.  We aren’t even sure if they were worn by the living or if they were solely exquisite grave goods.

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The Scilla crowns were discovered in huge, nigh impregnable barrows which were only excavated in the 1920s.  The coffins of the Silla nobles were placed in deep pits lined with wood.  These were covered with dense clay and then with giant river boulders and then with a huge burial mound.  This particular crown is 30.7 centimeters (one foot) in height and 18.4 centimeters  (7.25 inches) in diameter. The headband is decorated with lovely abstruse leaf-shapes and bent jade ornaments called “gogok” comma-shaped curved jewels which are believed to be tied to bear worship (perhaps reflecting Japanese of Iranian influence).

Wikipedia blithely states that the crown reflects no Chinese influence and yet, “the right and left most branches, along with the middle branches of the five branches, are composed of the Chinese character 出 in three prongs. The tips of the branches are decorated with a budding flower ornament.” Hmmm—you will have to make up your own mind on that score (although finding anything anywhere in East Asia without some sort of Chinese influence is rare).  Scholars who believe that the crowns reflect shamanistic influences see a tree in the gold shape (which seems like a bit of a stretch…but they do remind me a bit of Zhou Dynasty bronze work which was heavily influenced by animism/shamanism , so judge for yourself).

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Silla began as one small state in the Samhan confederacies (loosely allied with Imperial China), but subsequently spread through the middle of the peninsula.  During its heyday (around when these crowns were made) Silla succeeded in conquering the other two great kingdoms of Korea and briefly unifying the peninsula, but a parasitic entrenched aristocracy sapped it of its vitality and devoured it from within (a decline which was hastened by sectarianism, schism, and civil war).  We still have these splendid crowns though…

East Asia in 400 AD (Author: Thomas Lessman, Source Website: http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

The Korean kingdom of Baekje was founded in 18 BC by King Onjo, a third son from the royal dynasty of the neighboring Goguryeo kingdom.  At the height of its power around 375 AD, Baekje was a powerful force in eastern Asia with colonies in parts of China, substantial sea power, and a strong alliance with Japanese rulers of the Kofun period.  The Baekje kingdom’s territory stretched from the southern tip of Korea as far north as Pyongyang and included most of western Korea (ironically Korea was once divided along east/west lines).  The state flourished until 660 AD when it fell to an alliance between the Tang Dynasty Chinese and the Korean Kindom of Silla (a conquest orchestrated by Emperor Gaozong, the son of our old friend Lǐ Shìmín).

The Geumjegwansik, Diadems of the Monarchs of Baekje

I mention all of this, to explain the Geumjegwansik, a pair of two gold ornaments that were worn as a crown by King Muryeong, ruler of Baekje from AD 501 to AD 523. They were recovered in 1971 where they were discovered neatly stacked beside the dead king’s head inside his coffin. Today the two diadems are housed in Gongju National Museum (along with an identical pair found in the Queen’s coffin during the same excavation). They are cut out of plate gold a mere two millimeters in thickness and were attached to either side of a black silk cap like the one shown in the picture below. Resembling a mass of honeysuckle vines shaped into wings of flame, it is believed the diadems possessed a shamanistic magical significance.  It is also possible they were influenced by Buddhist visual tradition which portrayed bodhisattvas with golden halos.

The pieces were probably worn this way as a royal cap.

The crown is a pure example of Baekje craft, however the kingdom was famous for adopting many Chinese literary and artisitic influences which became melded into a unique creative tradition.  The extremely close ties which the Kingdom of Baekje also maintained with Kofun Japan (during the era when the Japanese Imperial bloodlines and tradition were coming into being) has provided a continuing source of controversy.  Baekje royalty resided in the Japanese royal court and, after the final collapse, emigrated to Japan.  Speculation is rampant that a few Baekje bloodlines slipped into the composition of the Chrisanthemum throne.

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