|Dolmens in Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa|
Key to Bronze Age Culture on the Korean Peninsula
|It is believed that humans began to inhabit the Korean peninsula around 700,000 years ago during the Paleolithic era. With an early agricultural society taking shape, the Bronze Age was in full swing around 1,000 B.C. The increased use of bronze tools, made from an alloy of copper and tin or zinc, characterized this period. As a result, tilling and livestock breeding developed into major means of livelihood. A widespread use of bronze implements yielded surplus farm products, which led to the emergence of power groups and social classes.|
| Bronze wares are most often excavated from megalithic barrows known as dolmens, or “goindol” in Korean, which literally means the “propped stone.” The dolmens are burial sites representative of the Bronze Age. While interment of the dead may have been the primary intention of early humans in creating the dolmens, the various burial offerings like earthenware, stone tools and bronze ware provide modern people with a vital glimpse into their society. They are important archaeological remains from the early stage of civilization found in natural environments, not inside museums. |
Dolmens are found all over the world, but are notably concentrated in the Northeast Asian countries of Korea, China and Japan. Among these countries, Korea is veritably the “kingdom of dolmens,” with a far larger number of the stone cists distributed throughout North and South Korea. Some 30,000 dolmens have been found in South Korea and 10,000 to 15,000 in North Korea, which together account for over 40 percent of all dolmens identified around the world.
Korea Has 40 Percent of All Dolmens Worldwide
Megalithic culture fully blossomed on the Korean peninsula in view of the degree of concentration and diversity in the forms and scales of dolmens discovered in the country. Dolmens are seen everywhere around Korea; they are so common that they can be mistaken for plain rocks sometimes. Running into them while tilling the fields, oftentimes farmers inadvertently removed or smashed what they deemed to be “troublesome rocks.” A considerable number of dolmens in Korea have presumably been destroyed in this way.
A great majority of dolmens in Korea are clustered along the west coast areas, particularly in Jeolla provinces where some 20,000 dolmens have been identified. Among these, dolmens at the World Heritage sites in Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa are in good condition, appropriately clustered and diverse in style, serving as important clues for studying the formation and evolution of prehistoric megalithic structures.
Korean dolmens look quite different from those in other regions. They are largely divided into two types, “table” and “checkerboard,” depending on the shape and position of the burial chamber. A table dolmen is built with three to four well-dressed stone slabs that are set upright to surround an above-ground burial cist and a large flat capstone that serves as the roof. The checkerboard dolmen, or the go-table dolmen, has an underground burial chamber made by erecting stone slabs or piling up broken stone fragments. A flat capstone laid on low propping stones covers the chamber. Some dolmens, resembling the checkerboard type, have no support stones but a capstone sits directly over a chamber. Another modified type found only in Jeju Island has several upright slabs aligned along the edge of a capstone to surround an above-ground cist.
The capstones vary in shape and size, weighing from scores to hundreds of tons. Moving such heavy stone blocks must have required a large workforce but how the huge dolmens were built without any heavy equipment remains a mystery. Empirical archaeology has found that 16 to 20 men must have been needed to move a 1-ton capstone over a distance of 1.5 kilometers; assuming that round logs and ropes were used, 200 men were required to move a 32-ton capstone.
To make a dolmen, the first task was gathering stones of appropriate size and shape, or breaking off necessary pieces from a boulder. In order to break off a stone piece from a rock base, a deep groove was made along the grain on the rock surface and a wooden stake was wedged in and moistened with water. Then as the wood swelled the rock would crack off.
Stone slabs hewn in this method were moved on rolling logs. With propping stones erected in pits, dirt was piled over the stones until a gentle-sloped dune was formed. The capstone was moved up along the slope and then the dirt underneath was removed. A dead body and funerary goods were placed in the empty space between the propping stones. The cist was then sealed with flat stone slabs.
This is the way the dolmens are assumed to have been built. No doubt the task required skilled masons and civil engineers who knew how to break off stones from rock boulders, how to transport the stones more easily, and how to lift and precisely position a capstone upon the propping stones.
The table-type dolmen required more labor to build because the capstone had to be lifted to cover an above-ground burial chamber. Dolmens with smaller or no propping stones were relatively easier to build as there was no need to lift a heavy capstone. Therefore, those who built table dolmens may be assumed to have possessed superior power. The checkerboard and capstone dolmens tend to have fewer artifacts or even no artifacts at all. Generally, table dolmens are found in the northern regions of the Korean peninsula, and dolmens with smaller or no propping stones in the southern regions, including Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces. Hence the former type is classified as the “northern style” and the latter types the “southern style.”
|Gochang: The World’s Densest Dolmen Cluster |
Hundreds of dolmens in varying sizes are found along the foot of the mountain at Jungnim-ri, Sanggap-ri and Dosan-ri in Gochang County, North Jeolla Province. They are scattered over slopes stretching some 1.8 kilometers from east to west. As many as 447 dolmens have been identified so far here, demonstrating its reputation as the world’s largest and densest cluster of dolmens.
|While the majority of dolmens in Gochang belong to the checkerboard type, the table dolmens at Jidong Village, Dosan-ri, have high academic value as they mark the southern limit of the northern style. Considering no remarkable funerary items have been found in dolmens in this area, it was probably a common burial custom among people of all classes at the time. The dolmens might have been graves of people who settled in the fertile land here around 400-500 B.C. Still, there must have been some class distinction between those who possessed bronze implements and those who did not. In this regard, the dolmens might have been family burial sites of tribal leaders. |
|Hwasun: Arena for Firsthand Education on Megalithic Culture |
A total of 597 dolmens dot an area spanning some five kilometers along a valley named Bogeomjae, which straddles Hyosan-ri in Dogok-myeon and Daesin-ri in Chunyang-myeon, Hwasun County, South Jeolla Province. Reported to academic circles rather recently in 1995, these dolmens were found buried under bushes in remarkably good condition. They include table, checkerboard and capstone dolmens. Scores of them weigh over 100 tons. One of them, named “Pingmae Bawi,” meaning “stone hurling rock,” is 7.3 meters long, 5 meters wide and 4 meters thick. Estimated to weigh some 280 tons, this is indisputably one of the largest dolmens in the world.
A survey on 35 dolmens at Jidong Village in Daesin-ri resulted in the discovery of diverse artifacts including stone implements and earthen vessels. These dolmens were probably built sometime between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C., as radiocarbon dating of charcoal retrieved from a burial cist pointed to 550 B.C. and thermoluminescence dating of earthenware to 770 B.C.
Another significant feature of this dolmen cluster is that a rock quarry has been found nearby the mountain top, where traces of quarrying for capstones and stone fragments remain. They offer a glimpse into the early masonry techniques and the construction process of dolmens.
Ganghwa: Table-type Dolmens in Aesthetic Forms
A total of 127 dolmens are scattered around the northern foot of Mt. Goryeo stretching over the five villages of Bugeun-ri, Samgeo-ri, Gocheon-ri, Osang-ri and Gyosan-ri in Gwanghwa County, which belongs to the great Incheon metropolitan area. Seventy of them in comparatively better states are on the World Heritage List.
These dolmens characteristically lie on diverse terrain, including mountain bases, hills, flat lands and mountain ridges. They are located some 100-200 meters above sea level, notably on higher altitudes than most other dolmens around Korea.
In the middle of the farming field in Bugeun-ri stands a famously beautiful dolmen. One of the largest dolmens in Korea, this impressive structure consists of two 2.45-meter-tall propping stones standing upright side by side from north to south, with a capstone measuring 6.4 meters by 5.23 meters, 1.12 meters thick, and weighing some 50 tons resting on top. The big propping stones are tilted some 30 degrees to the east, forming a long rectangular burial chamber resembling a passageway. The capstone is positioned almost parallel to the ground.
Like most other table-type dolmens which are vulnerable to robbery and consequent man-made damage, this internationally renowned dolmen was also found to contain no funerary objects. Some scholars suggest it may have been a monument to a certain group of prehistoric residents or a ritual altar, rather than a burial site.
Dolmens are among the most common types of prehistoric megalithic structures. Among other comparable monuments are the pyramids in Egypt and the Americas, Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, the Carnac menhir alignments in France, the moai statues of Easter Island in Polynesia, and the Tarxien Temples in Malta. These prehistoric remains, differing in shape and function, are generally believed to have been used for interment of human remains, memorials, or ritual sites.
Distinctively concentrated at the early phase of agricultural settlement, these stone structures, particularly dolmens, are highly valuable historical remnants. They provide vital clues to the cultures, social structures and political systems as well as the spiritual world of prehistoric people. Dolmens have thus been objects of extensive academic interest and studies. However, no clear theories have been established yet as to the origins of these enigmatic monuments of early man, their stylistic evolution, chronology and relations among artifacts unearthed from them. With many crucial questions remaining unresolved, dolmens require continued research and imagination.