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Gaya Confederacy revisited in 'Iron and Tune' exhibit

'Gaya Spirit ― Iron and Tune' opens at the National Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap
'Gaya Spirit ― Iron and Tune' opens at the National Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap

By Kwon Mee-yoo

The Gaya Confederacy (42-532) is a lesser-known chapter in Korea's history. The National Museum of Korea is holding "Gaya Spirit ― Iron and Tune," a special exhibition shedding light on the rich cultural and historical heritage of the ancient kingdom.

"Gaya is vaguely known as a confederacy of states, often dubbed the kingdom of iron due to its flourishing iron production," National Museum of Korea curator Yoon On-shik said.

This is the first exhibit on the ancient confederacy since 1991, unveiling the archaeological findings of the past 28 years to the public. It also coincides with the Moon Jae-in administration's agenda of rediscovering the Gaya Confederacy.

The exhibit's subtitle comes from the two most famous things about Gaya ― highly advanced ironware representing power and the "gayageum," a Korean 12-string zither named after the confederacy that symbolizes harmony.

"The Gaya did not consolidate each polity with supremacy, but respected the individuality of each state. This is the way Gaya existed and the reason Gaya collapsed," Yoon said.

Pottery from Gaya Confederacy showcases its diversity. Yonhap
Pottery from Gaya Confederacy showcases its diversity. Yonhap

The exhibit, featuring some 2,600 artifacts from 31 institutes, begins with an introduction to the myth of King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya and his queen Heo Hwang-ok. King Suro is said to have descended from heaven, while Heo crossed the sea from a faraway land to Gaya.

The "Pasa" Stone Pagoda is considered to be evidence of Queen Heo's voyage, as is written in "Samguk Yusa," a historical book dating back to the 13th century. It is said that Queen Heo brought this stone pagoda in her ship to overcome the raging sea and experts estimate that it was used to balance the ship. The red pasa stone has components not found in Korea, suggesting its foreign origin.

Pottery from various regions of Gaya shows how the confederacy embraced diversity.

"Mounted dishes from Garaguk have wide mouths, while Araguk dishes are decorated with flame-shaped holes and Gojaguk with triangle-shaped holes," Yoon said. Garaguk, Araguk and Gojaguk were all member states of the confederacy.

A highlight of the exhibition is a hall featuring artifacts from the Goryeong Jisandong Daegaya Tumuli, which houses the tomb of the king of Garaguk and 32 rooms for other people who were buried alive with the king.

"Though the custom of burying the living with the dead king seems barbaric now, people volunteered to do so back then. Those buried with the king are presumed to be the king's guards, horsemen and tailors," Yoon said.

Horn Cup in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
Horn Cup in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea

The exhibit also shows the highly advanced ironware of Gaya. National Treasure No. 275 "Horn Cup in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback" shows a typical Gaya heavy cavalry ― complete with iron armor for both soldiers and horses.

Acclaimed novelist Kim Hoon, who authored "Song of Strings" which revolves around Gaya-era blacksmith Yaro and musician Ureuk, wrote some of the exhibition panels as well as the catalogue.

The exhibit runs through March 1, 2020, and will then tour to the Busan Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura, Japan, and the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu, Japan, throughout next year.


'Gaya Spirit ― Iron and Tune' opens at the National Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap
'Gaya Spirit ― Iron and Tune' opens at the National Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap

By Kwon Mee-yoo

The Gaya Confederacy (42-532) is a lesser-known chapter in Korea's history. The National Museum of Korea is holding "Gaya Spirit ― Iron and Tune," a special exhibition shedding light on the rich cultural and historical heritage of the ancient kingdom.

"Gaya is vaguely known as a confederacy of states, often dubbed the kingdom of iron due to its flourishing iron production," National Museum of Korea curator Yoon On-shik said.

This is the first exhibit on the ancient confederacy since 1991, unveiling the archaeological findings of the past 28 years to the public. It also coincides with the Moon Jae-in administration's agenda of rediscovering the Gaya Confederacy.

The exhibit's subtitle comes from the two most famous things about Gaya ― highly advanced ironware representing power and the "gayageum," a Korean 12-string zither named after the confederacy that symbolizes harmony.

"The Gaya did not consolidate each polity with supremacy, but respected the individuality of each state. This is the way Gaya existed and the reason Gaya collapsed," Yoon said.

Pottery from Gaya Confederacy showcases its diversity. Yonhap
Pottery from Gaya Confederacy showcases its diversity. Yonhap

The exhibit, featuring some 2,600 artifacts from 31 institutes, begins with an introduction to the myth of King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya and his queen Heo Hwang-ok. King Suro is said to have descended from heaven, while Heo crossed the sea from a faraway land to Gaya.

The "Pasa" Stone Pagoda is considered to be evidence of Queen Heo's voyage, as is written in "Samguk Yusa," a historical book dating back to the 13th century. It is said that Queen Heo brought this stone pagoda in her ship to overcome the raging sea and experts estimate that it was used to balance the ship. The red pasa stone has components not found in Korea, suggesting its foreign origin.

Pottery from various regions of Gaya shows how the confederacy embraced diversity.

"Mounted dishes from Garaguk have wide mouths, while Araguk dishes are decorated with flame-shaped holes and Gojaguk with triangle-shaped holes," Yoon said. Garaguk, Araguk and Gojaguk were all member states of the confederacy.

A highlight of the exhibition is a hall featuring artifacts from the Goryeong Jisandong Daegaya Tumuli, which houses the tomb of the king of Garaguk and 32 rooms for other people who were buried alive with the king.

"Though the custom of burying the living with the dead king seems barbaric now, people volunteered to do so back then. Those buried with the king are presumed to be the king's guards, horsemen and tailors," Yoon said.

Horn Cup in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
Horn Cup in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea

The exhibit also shows the highly advanced ironware of Gaya. National Treasure No. 275 "Horn Cup in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback" shows a typical Gaya heavy cavalry ― complete with iron armor for both soldiers and horses.

Acclaimed novelist Kim Hoon, who authored "Song of Strings" which revolves around Gaya-era blacksmith Yaro and musician Ureuk, wrote some of the exhibition panels as well as the catalogue.

The exhibit runs through March 1, 2020, and will then tour to the Busan Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura, Japan, and the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu, Japan, throughout next year.


Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr


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