Silk Road Glass in Korea


Friday, September 30, 2011, 9:00am to 5:00pm


S153, CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Early Korea Project workshop


People Involved:
James Lankton
Kim Kyu Ho
Kwon Oh Young
Lee Insook

Contact Person: Mark Byington

Sponsored by: Northeast Asian History Foundation

This workshop will bring new attention to how the study of ancient glass, including scientific analysis, can inform what we know about the past and suggest new questions, approaches, and interpretations of how technology and society changed and developed in the early states of Korea.

The Korean peninsula extends from the Eurasian mainland, attached to what is now northern China but surrounded on its long coastline by open water. While many Korean and Chinese scholars, and certainly such standard texts as the Samguk sagi (12th c.) and Samguk yusa (13th c.), would emphasize the attachment to China, new types of archaeological evidence demand a fundamental reassessment of the cultural influences that were important in the formation of early Korean identity and statehood. An essential part of this new evidence comes from the careful study, including quantitative scientific analysis, of glass objects found at Korean archaeological sites. We suggest that this glass evidence remains under-appreciated among historians and archaeologists working in Korea, in part because there are so few experts on early glass in Korea, and in part because of the traditional divide between Korean humanities-based archaeology and contemporary science-based archaeological investigations.

Recent work has shown that while the earliest glass found on the Korean peninsula (late 3rd to early 2nd c. BCE) indicates a strong link to mainland glass technology, by the turn of the 1st millennium BCE/CE the picture was changing to glass, mostly beads, with a chemical composition matching that produced in South and Southeast Asia. The massive quantities of glass beads found at Korean sites, and the privileged place often given, as indicated by deposition in prestige graves, begin to indicate the importance of beads in developing Korean societies. At the same time, because glass is well preserved in the acid Korean soils, the excavated glass is often the best remaining evidence for the types of external contacts, with concomitant flow of people and ideas, between early ‘Koreans’ and the wider world. Based on our studies so far, these contacts were both by sea, along the maritime Silk Routes, and by land, either via the well known oasis routes around the Taklamakan Desert, or via the less-studied steppe routes far to the north.

We have proposed this workshop, sponsored by the Early Korea Project at Harvard University, as a starting point for a wider investigation, presentation and interpretation of the glass evidence found in Korea. Our working title is ‘Silk Road glass in Korea,’ and we hope to produce a volume, to be published in both English and Korean, that will bring new attention to how glass study, including scientific analysis, can inform archaeology and suggest new questions, approaches and interpretations. Our goals for the workshop are to present our current thoughts and the state of our research to a scholarly audience, with the expectation that outside opinions will greatly benefit our thinking, both in terms of helping us to clarify points that remain poorly articulated, and to supplement our understanding of early production and exchange systems.

The four speakers at the workshop will be Insook Lee, former Director of the Busan Museum, providing a general background to Silk Road glass in Korea and an overview of early glasses in Korean archaeology; Oh Young Kwon, Director of the Hanshin University Museum, speaking on the historical and archaeological contexts of Korean during the Three Kingdoms Period; Gyu Ho Kim, Professor of Conservation Science at Gongju National University, reviewing early primary glass production in Korea; and James Lankton, Senior Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, telling some of the ‘Silk Road stories’ of glass beads and vessels, revealed through the chemical compositional analysis of glass found in Korea.