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The Archaeology of Korea.

The archaeology of Korea is little known in the west, partly because ancient China attracts most scholarly and popular attention, and partly because of the lack of source materials in western languages. Sarah Nelson's book, the sixth in the Cambridge world archaeology series, explicitly aims at 'placing Korea on the map of world archaeology' and is intended, as she says, not for insiders, the small cadre of Koreanists, but for professional archaeologists working in other regions, for students needing a resource on Korea, for amateurs interested in discoveries world-wide and Asianists who are primarily historians or art historians. Korean archaeology is important, she says, both for its own sake to help us understand a unique series of cultural events in East Asia, and for what it can tell us about general processes to set alongside our understanding of cultural and social evolution in other parts of the world. The book covers the period from the first appearance of humans in the Middle Pleistocene to the political unification of Korea under the Silla Dynasty in AD 668, and is mainly based on Korean primary sources, as archaeology there is a largely indigenous development in which foreigners have played only a minor role. Since 1945 the peninsula has been divided into two competing, politically hostile states, and the author's sources are drawn primarily from the southern, Republic of Korea, since North Korean archaeological publications, at one time prohibited in the south, are still difficult to obtain. The data used in the book are primarily from surveys and excavations, because external documentary sources from China and Japan are relevant only to the very end of the period treated, and are in any case vague in their geography and biased in their accounts of 'barbarian' customs. The Korean 'Histories of the Three Kingdoms' were written long after the events they purport to describe, and see the past through alien Confucian or Buddhist perceptions. The author draws on these only as 'palaeoethnographic material' to add colour to the archaeological evidence, the structuring of which provides the main framework for the book.

In the first, introductory, chapter the author discusses the role of archaeology in Korean society, presents a summary of foreign perceptions of Korea, lays out the basic facts on Korean physical anthropology, language and culture and introduces her sources. Today, the Korean people are ethnically and physically remarkably homogeneous, speaking a single language belonging to the Central Asian Altaic family, only distantly (if at all) related to Japanese and not at all to Chinese, despite the presence of many loan words and other cultural borrowings from the giant southern neighbour. To many Korean archaeologists, the main purpose of their discipline is to document the emergence of the Korean nation from prehistory. The author's discussion here of ethnicity, language and archaeology, though brief, is perceptive, and is taken up again in the final eighth chapter, 'Ethnicity in retrospect', in which she examines the continuity of cultural traditions, territorial boundaries and population movements through time as revealed by archaeology.

Chapter 2 presents an introduction to the Korean environment in which the mountainous, forested nature of the country is stressed with its steep slopes, winding river valleys and small, isolated, if fertile, agricultural basins which provide an unlikely setting for the development of such a homogeneous society. Palaeoclimatic data, though rare, suggest that there have been no major climatic changes, but rather latitudinal shifts in vegetation zones which range from the coniferous forest of the northern mountains to an evergreen broad-leaf forest of the south coast. The major Pleistocene changes were the fluctuations in sea levels which on occasion linked Korea to China across the Yellow Sea and to Japan across the Tsushima Straits. Following this are five, chronologically structured, chapters which deal respectively with Palaeolithic foragers, early villages, the Bronze and Iron Ages and the appearance of three competing kingdoms, Koguryo, Paekche and Silla in the north, south-west and south-east of the peninsula before its unification under the Silla in the 7th century. Only 23 Pleistocene sites have so far been recognized, and details of the sequences, adaptations and affiliations of the Palaeolithic cultures are sparse. Three sites are claimed to have yielded Homo erectus remains, but all are disputed and none adequately published. The discovery of four bifacially worked 'Acheulian-type' hand-axes out of 1126 stone implements at Chon'gongi site in central Korea is said to have broken the 'Movius Line' and forced a reassessment of the early Palaeolithic in East Asia; but quite recently (and this is mentioned only in the author's introduction) it has been argued that these date to no earlier than 40,000 b.p. From about 30,000 b.p., Late Palaeolithic sites are more common and better documented, and with their use of obsidian and microblade techniques show clear relationships with sites in Manchuria and Japan. Pleistocene sites in Korea are generally small and suggest a relatively low population of highly mobile family-sized bands hunting in a rather unproductive forest environment.

From about 6000 BC clusters of more permanent village settlements with semi-underground houses are found along the coasts and major river valleys. Comb-marked (Chulmun) and the rather earlier, raised design (Yungkimun) pottery, is found in all these sites, and this phase is generally referred to as Neolithic by Korean archaeologists, although there is little evidence yet for food production and the emphasis from surviving remains seems to be on fishing, shellfish collecting, hunting and foraging for nuts and berries -- a subsistence base very similar to that on contemporary Jomon Japan. The Osanni site has a date of 10,000 BC for Yungkimun pottery, and the similarity between this and the Initial Jomon linear relief ware, as well as pottery in the Liaoning peninsula of north-east China and the Maritime Provinces of the former USSR, suggests the widespread dispersal in north-east Asia of culturally related communities with a strong maritime orientation in the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene. From about 2000 BC significant changes in pottery styles and settlement locations are accompanied by the appearance of megalithic funerary monuments in which Korea (unlike China) is particularly rich. Regional diversity is greater than in the preceding period and from about 1000 BC local bronze working is attested as well as imports from Shang and Zhou China, which stales clearly exercised considerable, if indirect, influence in the Korean Peninsula. There is clear evidence for food production in the form of grains of rice of the japonica variety, sorghum and foxtail millet and barley and, according to North Korean reports, pigs, dogs and cattle had been domesticated. From about the 4th century BC iron was being produced and above-ground wooden houses largely replaced the earlier pit-dwellings as an increasingly unified China expanded its cultural and political influence in the north. From 75 BC the northern half of the Korean peninsula was incorporated into the Han Empire before the Koguryo kingdom of the north-east ended Chinese political control in AD 313. From the 4th to the 7th centuries AD Korea was divided between the Three Kingdoms of Paekche, Silla and Koguryo; all culturally strongly sinicized, and the last ruling a vast area of present-day Manchuria north of the Yalu River. These states were highly stratified with hereditary aristocracies, a professional administrative class and strongly fortified towns, and each pursued a policy of expansion and conquest in which Silla, allied to Tang China, finally gained the upper hand in AD 668. Archaeologists working on this period have focussed mainly on the many royal and princely burials which have produced great treasures, satisfying Korean nationalist aspirations and providing material to fuel bitter arguments over the cultural influence of Korea on Japan and vice versa.

Throughout the book the author maintains a careful balance between descriptive, chronological reporting, discussion of cultural process and elucidating the problematic relationships between archaeological and historical sources. The 14 maps are adequate, if not elegant, but the drawings of pottery and other artefacts, probably xeroxed from Korean publications, are well below the best standards of western archaeological illustration. On balance, one can say that the author has succeeded in placing Korea on the 'map of world archaeology', but not perhaps in exciting students and educated amateurs to want to know more about the past of this once-enigmatic nation. IAN GLOVER Institute of Archaeology, University College London
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Author:Glover, Ian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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