Field Report: Two Days in Gyeongju, South Korea – Day 2 Part 1 (17 February 2018)

In my last few posts (here, here, and here), we’ve seen some of the remarkable architectural relics of the long-lost Kingdom of Silla. Now we’re off to visit one of Korea’s finest museums, where we can admire and appreciate other historic treasures that might be far smaller in size, but are the equal of any Silla ruin or landmark in terms of grandeur and craftsmanship.

First, a reminder of our present whereabouts.

Saturday, 17 February 2018.

After a simple, hearty breakfast in the deliciously heated dining area of my Gyeongju guesthouse…

…I put on my cold weather gear and headed out into the glorious winter sunshine. The mercury was still hovering in the single digits (low of -4 °C, high of 6 °C), but I couldn’t be more chuffed to see that the previous day’s fantastic weather was holding beautifully.

My destination was a long but easy walk away to the southeast. The route took me past the eroded remnants of the Silla Kingdom‘s Wolseong (월성) fortress, parts of which I explored the day before.

The march of more than a thousand years has reduced these once-formidable walls into something resembling a series of low hills. Even so, it’s hard for the mind to grasp the sheer volume of earth that had to be moved in order to raise this defensive barrier.

After rounding the southeastern corner of the Wolseong site (just a few hundred metres past the Wolji/Anapji compound), I finally reached my destination…

…the Gyeongju National Museum (국립경주박물관, Gungnip Gyeongju Bangmulgwan), one of Korea’s main repositories for the material relics of ancient Silla. Originally founded under the auspices of the Japanese Government-General, the institution was reestablished in 1945 (shortly after Korea regained its independence) as a branch of the National Museum in Seoul. Despite a temporary closure and the evacuation of its treasures to Busan during the Korean War, the museum has continued to expand in the decades since, keeping pace with the steady accumulation of archaeological finds from the Gyeongju area (where the Silla royal capital of Seorabeol was once located). In August 1975, just weeks after transferring to a new purpose-built facility, the then-“National Museum of Korea, Gyeongju Branch” was renamed the Gyeongju National Museum, reflecting its important role in the preservation and study of artefacts from the Silla period.

I arrived shortly before the museum’s scheduled 10:00 AM opening. Fortunately, visitors were already being allowed into the compound (though not into the actual exhibition galleries), which gave me an opportunity to survey some of the artefacts exhibited in the open air.

A concrete pavilion near the main building houses the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok (성덕대왕신종). This massive object was commissioned by King Gyeongdeok of Silla (reigned AD 742–765) in honour of his father – for whom the bell was named – although it was actually cast and completed under his successor King Hyegong (reigned AD 765–780).

Right, ten o’clock. Time to head up the stairs and enter the museum’s central hall, the Silla History Gallery.

The upper level of this building is divided into four main sections, each dedicated to a period in Silla’s long history. The staggering number of artefacts I beheld in these rooms was far beyond my ability to reckon (or individually photograph), but here’s a very, very small sampling of the treasures that a visitor might expect to see within.

There’s far more to see here than just gold, of course. One exhibit in particular caught my attention: a scale model of a certain famous temple that once stood north of here. But we’ll have more to say about that in my next post.

After making my rounds of the Silla History Gallery, I explored the rest of the museum’s exhibition spaces, which are spread between several buildings. Of particular interest to me was the Wolji Gallery, which contains hundreds of artefacts chosen from about 30,000 Silla-era finds uncovered during archaeological digs at the site of the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (which I visited on the previous day).

Out in the rear courtyard, I saw a replica of the Dabotap tower, erected in 1975 when the museum transferred to its present location. The 8th-century AD original stands in the world-famous Bulguksa temple compound southeast of central Gyeongju, which I considered visiting on this particular trip. In the end, I decided that there wasn’t enough time for the relatively out-of-the-way excursion there and back, but it’s yet another reason for me to return to Gyeongju one day.

By noontime, the museum complex was teeming with Seollal holidaymakers. The lively crowds added a festive note to the setting, but I was inwardly thankful not to have to compete with the horde in the exhibition halls (queues and chatter don’t really make for good exhibit viewing).

A quick lunch break at the onsite convenience store, then straight out through the main gate in search of more remnants of Silla’s former glory. Along the way, I spotted a relic that wasn’t quite that old…

…although the fact that the translations used the older McCune–Reischauer method of rendering Korean place-names, as opposed to the current official Revised Romanisation system, seemed to suggest that this sign hadn’t been updated in years. (It’s also interesting that they’ve used carons rather than the standard breves as diacritical marks.)

Sorry, not really relevant to a travel post. But romanisation’s just one of the many, many little things that pique my interest whenever I holiday in Korea. ㅋㅋㅋ


2 responses to “Field Report: Two Days in Gyeongju, South Korea – Day 2 Part 1 (17 February 2018)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Two Days in Gyeongju, South Korea – Day 2 Part 2 (17 February 2018) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Field Report:  Gyeongju, South Korea (03 February 2019) | Within striking distance·

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