The prehistoric cemeteries at Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa are the sites of hundreds of dolmens, stone slab burial chambers, in the southwestern portion of the Korean Peninsula and are collectively designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. Dated from the seventh to the third centuries B.C.E. and possibly earlier, the collection of dolmens in the three sites represents the greatest concentration of dolmens in Korea and in the world. They provide valuable evidence of the change in dolmen types through the centuries in north-east Asia and of the way the stones were quarried, moved to the site, and elevated into position. Among them, the many dolmens illustrate the two main types of northeast Asian dolmens: The table or northern style and the go-board/southern style.
The dolmens provide the earliest archeological evidence of the Korean people’s religious practices. Requiring great planning, coordination, and collaboration for their construction, the dolmens served as burial markers for tribal and spiritual leaders. Shaman priests would have conducted ceremonies invoking the spirit of the person buried there to protect the tribe.
The great influence of shamanism in the development of Korean culture is attested to by the fact that the Korean peninsula as a whole has the greatest number of dolmens of any country in the world. The shamanism behind the dolmens would have taught of the reality of spirits and the presence of an ultimate God (the Sky God).
Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000, Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites are distinctive and exemplary. The sites contain hundreds of stone dolmens used as grave markers and for ritual ceremonies during the first millennium B.C.E. when the Megalithic Culture prevailed on the Korean Peninsula. Korea contains more than 40 percent of the world’s dolmens, mostly concentrated in the Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa sites.
The megalithic stones mark the graves of the ruling elite, making them invaluable sign-posts for archeologists. The connection with geomancy is evident. Shaman priests buried prominent persons in locations to protect the villages, considering the fengshi of the location that would best ward off evil spirits or disaster. The connection with Shamanism is readily apparent, too. The connection between the living and the departed spirits dominated prehistoric tribal culture.
Pottery, comma-shaped jewels, bronzes, and other funerary artifacts have been excavated from these dolmens. The culture of the people during this time can be gleaned from the evidence left by the dolmens. Additionally, the stones show how stone was quarried, transported, and used to build dolmens.
Dolmens in Korea date to the seventh century B.C.E., in locations such as Gochang. The practice of constructing dolmen ended around the third century B.C.E. The dolmen culture links with the Neolithic and Bronze periods in Korea. Excavation at the sites began in 1965. Since then, the Korean government has sponsored multiple digs an extensive program of inventory and preservation has been initiated.
Dolmens are generally classified in two types in East Asia. The table/northern type and the go-board/southern type. In the former, builders positioned the four stones to make box-like walls and capped by a stone which lay on top of the supports. The latter is characterized by underground burial with stones that supported the capstone.
Gochang dolmens site (Jungnim-ri dolmens)
Known as the Jungnim-ri dolmens, the Gochang group of dolmens are the largest and most varied of the three sites. Built from east to west at the foot of a series of hills at an altitude of fifteen to fifty meters, the dolmens have been discovered in and around Maesan village. The capstones of the dolmens average around one to 5.8 meters in length and weigh from ten to 300 tons. Four hundred and forty-two dolmen have been documented and classified based on the size of the capstone. The Gochang dolmens have been dated to around the seventh century C.E.
Hwasun dolmens site (Hyosan-ri and Dasin-ri dolmens)
Also located on the slopes of hills and following the Jiseokgang river, the Hyosan-ri cluster contains 158 dolmens and the Dasin-ri cluster, 129. The Jungnim-ri cluster in Gochang are better preserved than the Hyosan-ri and Dasin-ri dolmens. The quarry where some of the stones of this group were carved out has been located. This group is dated to around the sixth or fifth century C.E.
Ganghwa Dolmens Site (Bugun-ri and Cocheon-ri dolmens)
“Goindol dolmens: Historical Treasure No. 137” sits amidst a field of ginseng nearby Ganghwa town, on Ganghwa Island. The largest dolmen in Korea, Goindol measures 2.6 by 7.1 by 5.5 meters. Pre-historic Shaman Koreans apparently conducted ceremonial rites on the northern, table-type dolmens in Ganghwa. The dolmens on Ganghwa stand on the slopes of mountains at higher elevations than the Gochang and Hwasun sites. The Bugun-ri and Cocheon-ri groups apparently constitute the earliest dolmens, although that has not been confirmed.