South Korea – land with the most dolmens in the world

Ganghwa Bugeun-ri Dolmen is an iconic table-shaped dolmen in the northern style in Ganghwado, in Bugeun-ri, Ganghwa-do, Incheon. It has the longest stone of its kind in South Korea, measuring 7.1 metres. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Korea harbours an enormous number of dolmens, testifying to the fact that in Prehistory the Korean Peninsula was a very busy place. The dolmens are megalithic burial monuments and places of worship, erected in the period from the early Neolithicum to the Bronze Age. South Korea has more dolmens than any other country in the world.

Some Korean dolmens contain a carefully carved map of the stars. Reading the stars was the key to understanding weather patterns, on which agriculture heavily depended. They were essential for knowing when to plant crops for a successful harvest.

The sun rises over the Gochang Dosan-ri dolmen, a dolmen of the northern style in Gochang, province of North-Jeolla. The cluster of dolmens in the region of Gochang comprises the largest variety of dolmens in the world in a single area. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The development of agriculture during the Neolithicum and the Bronze Age was of crucial importance for the growth of organised communities and the subsequent population growth. Successful agriculture also made possible the stable civilisation which was responsible for an organised hierarchy in a society which included slaves and a working class. Although dolmens can be found in many places, including Africa, Europe and India, the largest number are in Korea. In fact, more than 40,000 have been identified.

The dolmens from the early Neolithic period and the Bronze Age were erected during the Oude Joseon period, which lasted around 2000 years. According to historical reports the Oude Joseon civilisation arose around 2333 BC. All subsequent dynasties and empires, even up to those of today, can be traced back directly to that time.

Researchers have discovered that the Oude Joseon were a formidable power in East Asia with their successful cultivation of rice, advanced textile weaving and weapons from the Bronze Age. Archaeological excavations in the 20th century revealed extensive evidence of ancient life and customs in Korea which have survived to this day. Examples include rice growing and old coinage from neighbouring empires. From historical reports we know that Oude Joseon textiles were in great demand.

The absence of a dry climate in Korean means that buried remains do not last for very long. Nevertheless researchers have discovered human remains under the hunebeds. DNA analysis has shown that not all these remains were Asiatic and they might have been of Aryan origin, an indication that Korea has frequently been visited by people from other civilisations.

The area around Gochang, in the province of North Jeolla, is famous for the large number and great variety of dolmens. In the past it must certainly have been a very busy place, which is why Gochang calls itself the “First Capital City of the Korean Peninsula”.

There are three types of dolmen in Korea. The northern type, found mainly in the north, the former home of the Oude Joseon in Northeast Asia, have high flat “legs” supporting a large flat stone table.

Ungok Dolmen, the world’s largest dolmen, estimated at 300 tons, in Ungok in Gochang, province of North-Jeolla. These dolmens of the southern type have burial chambers under the largest rocks. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The southern type are known as ‘short-legged’ dolmens and are found mainly in South Korea.

Then there is a third hybrid type, in which underground burial chambers were built and covered with a large block of stone, some of which weigh more than 100 tons.

The largest dolmen ever found is in Ungok in the province of Gochang. The Ungok Dolmen is estimated to weigh around 300 tons and is considered the heaviest hunebed in the world. It is thought that moving this rock would have required thousands of people.

Indeed, there must have been an enormous number of local inhabitants to be able to build such an enormous hunebed, not to mention co-ordinating the work, providing food and managing all the accompanying administrative issues which would have been necessary for such a project in prehistoric times. What is clear is that the Koreans in antiquity knew what they were doing! The fact that the dolmens still exist today is proof of that.

Researchers have concluded that many dolmens were built facing a body of water, usually a river or stream. Visitors in those times arriving by boat would have been confronted with a spectacular view of the stone monuments.

Visitors are dwarfed by the Pingmaebawi dolmen, weighing around 200 tons, on the Hwasun dolmen site in the province of South-Jeolla. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

In 2000, three Korean regions with large numbers of dolmen monuments, Gochang, Hwasun and the Ganghwa islands in South-Korea, were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

These three regions contain the highest concentration and the largest variety of dolmens in the world. It is a fitting co-incidence that the Korean word “dol” means stone.

Text and photos: Hyungwon Kang, The Korea Herald

Translation Alun Harvey


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