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Joseon Royal Tombs

Elite Burials of Medieval Korea

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Tomb of King Seongjong (ruled 1469-1494)and his wife Queen Jeonghyeonwanghu

Tomb of King Seongjong (ruled 1469-1494)and his wife Queen Jeonghyeonwanghu

Adam Nicholson

Joseon tombs are what archaeologists call the extremely well-preserved tombs constructed for elite persons during the medieval Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) in the Korean peninsula. The tombs are remarkable in part because the burial was encapsulated in a box made of a lime-soil-water mixture (known in the literature as LSMB). This hard barrier sealed out oxygen and preserved cultural artifacts and human remains in a state of quite astounding preservation. These burials are sometimes referred to as the Korean mummies, but the information they provide about Joseon Dynasty society is extensive.

Distributed over a wide swath of the Korean peninsula, LSMB tombs were used to inter elite personages for the duration of the Joseon dynasty, essentially the 15th through 19th centuries AD, and most frequently during the 16th and 17th centuries. If carefully excavated, LSMB tombs provide superb information about Joseon Dynastic society.

Tomb Construction

Joseon royal tombs were constructed using a method described by the Song Dynasty (12th century AD) neo-Confucian scholar Chu Hsi. First, a burial pit was excavated and its floor and walls were coated with up to a 15 centimeter (5 inch) thickness of lime, soil and water. This mixture was allowed to harden to a concrete-like consistency known as a lime-soil-mixture barrier (LSMB).

Typically, the person was clothed in their best wear, and then placed in a shroud and wrapped with extra clothing in a broad textile. The body was placed in wooden coffin. Many additional pieces of clothing and textiles were interred with the individual, stacked around the body to fill vacant spaces within the coffin. The wooden coffin was placed in another outer coffin and placed into the excavated pit. More clothing stacked on top and the pit was sealed with another layer of LSMB and an earthen mound raised above it.

Archaeological Studies

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, investigations of Joseon LSMB tombs identified highly preserved clothing and textiles in quantities to illustrate clothing styles for the entire length of the Joseon dynasty.

In 1964, for example, 200 pieces of clothing were discovered within the tomb of Princess Cheon Yeon (1754-1821). Since that time, over 1,000 pieces of well-preserved clothing have been found in approximately 100 excavated tombs, allowing historians to reconstruct a detailed history of Joseon clothing for the entire period.

At least one tomb, that of Eung Tae [1556-1586], the younger brother of an important official, contained dozens of well-preserved letters written by his relatives.

But more recently, Korean medical scholars have focused on the mummified and skeletal remains of the people themselves, discovering information about general health, parasites and diseases of the wealthy parts of Joseon society.

Examples of Excavated Joseon Tombs

In Gongju, for example, a couple was found buried side by side and dated to the mid or early 18th century. The skeleton of the woman, aged in her early forties, exhibited evidence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The genetic roots of this disease are somewhat in debate at the moment, but the disease is currently thought to have originated in the Americas. (See Kim, Lee, Kim et al. below for additional information).

A male mummy found within an LSMB tomb in Gangneung City was identified as Geyongsun [1561-1622], a member of the Gangneung Cho clan and the son of the famous scholar Unwoo. Geyongsun was given a likely honorary post as a military commander after his death; he probably died as a result of a fall (See Lee, Lee, Park et al.).

In 2009, the Andong National University Museum unearthed a Joseon Dynasty tomb in Hadong. Based on tombstone, the person buried in the tomb was the second wife of Heehyun, the fourteenth descendant of the clan founder, and she likely lived in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, and died while 32 weeks pregnant about the age of 20-30. HD-2 as she is known was buried with dozens of pieces of clothing as coffin fill, in addition to the five skirts, two coats, two jackets, three undershirts, shoes, socks, wigs and a faceveil. (See Lee 2013)

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Joseon Dynasty, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Kim DK, Lee IS, Kim WL, Lee JS, Koh BJ, Kim MJ, Youn MY, Shin MH, Kim YS, Lee SS et al. 2011. Possible rheumatoid arthritis found in the human skeleton collected from the tomb of Joseon Dynasty, Korea, dating back to the 1700s AD. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 21(2):136-149.

Kim NY, Lee HY, Park MJ, Yang WI, and Shin K-J. 2011. A genetic investigation of Korean mummies from the Joseon Dynasty. Molecular Biology Reports 38(1):115-121.

Kim Y-S, Oh CS, Lee SJ, Park JB, Kim MJ, and Shin DH. 2011. Sex determination of Joseon people skeletons based on anatomical, cultural and molecular biological clues. Annals of Anatomy - Anatomischer Anzeiger 193(6):539-543.

Lee IS, Lee E-J, Park JB, Baek SH, Oh CS, Lee SD, Kim Y-S, Bok GD, Hong JW, Lim D-S et al. . 2009. Acute traumatic death of a 17th century general based on examination of mummified remains found in Korea. Annals of Anatomy - Anatomischer Anzeiger 191(3):309-320.

Lee E-J, Oh C, Yim S, Park J, Kim Y-S, Shin M, Lee S, and Shin D. 2013. Collaboration of Archaeologists, Historians and Bioarchaeologists During Removal of Clothing from Korean Mummy of Joseon Dynasty. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17(1):94-118.

Lee E-J, Shin D, Yang HY, Spigelman M, and Yim S. 2009. Eung Tae's tomb: a Joseon ancestor and the letters of those that loved him. Antiquity 83(319):145-156.

Park HY. 2010. HERITAGE TOURISM: Emotional Journeys into Nationhood. Annals of Tourism Research 37(1):116-135.

Shin DH, Oh CS, Lee SJ, Chai JY, Kim J, Lee SD, Park JB, Choi I-h, Lee HJ, and Seo M. 2011. Paleo-parasitological study on the soils collected from archaeological sites in old district of Seoul City. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(12):3555-3559.

Shin DH, Oh CS, Shin YM, Cho CW, Ki HC, and Seo M. The pattern of ancient parasite egg contamination in the private residence, alley, ditch and streambed soils of Old Seoul City, the Capital of Joseon Dynasty. International Journal of Paleopathology(in press).

Shin DH, Lim D-S, Choi K-J, Oh CS, Kim MJ, Lee IS, Kim SB, Shin JE, Bok GD, Chai JY et al. 2009. Scanning Electron Microscope Study of Ancient Parasite Eggs Recovered from Korean Mummies of the Joseon Dynasty. The Journal of Parastology 95(1137-145).

Son H. 2013. Images of the Future in South Korea. Futures (in press).

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