Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gaya: The "Iron Kingdom" of the Korean Peninsula

A suit of armor from the Gaya kingdom in Korea. (Good friend 100/Wikimedia Commons)
Have you seen the Korean drama series from 2010 titled Kim Su-Ro: The Iron King? If you have, you are probably familiar with the ancient Korean kingdom of Gaya (가야). While not as well-known as the larger Korean kingdoms of Gorguyeo, Baekje, and Silla, Gaya was a very small but important kingdom in not just ancient Korea, but in northeast Asia as a whole.

Gaya was a confederacy of city-states that existed from around AD 42-532. It was situated in extreme south-central Korea on an abundant natural supply of soil and minerals, including iron. These natural resources helped it develop an earthenware trade and, most importantly of all, an iron trade. This abundance of iron - and Gaya's advanced smelting and iron-making techniques - helped Gaya gain its reuptation as the "Iron Kingdom." Over time it developed extensive trading networks with the neighboring kingdoms of Baekje and well as China and Wa, or Kofun-period Japan!

Iron-manufacturing technology most likely spread into Korea from Yan state in China, which was located around the modern-day Beijing area. Yan existed from the 9th century BC-222 BC, when it was conquered and absorbed by Qin state.

A map of different locations in Korea where Gaya helmets have been found. (Azukiajuma/Wikimedia Commons)
Gaya made and exported a wide variety of iron objects, including farming implements such as sickles and axes, weaponry such as iron arrowheads, swords, and knives, and armor. Gaya's reputation for high-quality iron products was well-known throughout the region. In the map above, we can see that iron helmets from Gaya (blue) have been found at a number of Baekje (red) and Silla (yellow and green) sites. These helmets were no doubt worn by soldiers who fought their nations' inter-kingdom wars. And of course, the soldiers of the Gaya kingdom made use of this armor as well. Gaya's city-states had armies that kept the tiny kingdom alive for nearly 500 years.

A Gaya warrior.
Gaya had extensive trading networks inside the Korean peninsula. In Korea, it traded with its neighboring kingdoms of Silla and Baekje. Gaya weapons and armor helped Baekje become a major military power on the Korean peninsula. Its main trading partners outside the Korean peninsula were the Chinese commandery of Lelang (Located in present-day North Korea; conquered and annexed by the neighboring Korean state of Goguryeo in AD 313.) and the Japanese states in Kyushu, but Gaya armor has been found elsewhere in China as well. At the time, Japan had no iron-making skills of its own and made much use of Gaya's iron products.

Over time, Gaya taught the techniques and technology for smelting earthenware and iron. Also, people from Gaya began to emigrate to Kyushu and set up earthenware kilns. By the end of the 5th century AD, Japan began producing its own iron and earthenware products (including Sue ware) thanks to the contributions of these immigrants and the Gaya kingdom. These developments would change Japan forever and have an impact on Japanese civilization and culture long after Gaya ceased to exist.

Armor, helmets, jewelry, trinkets, tools, and more that can be traced back to Gaya have been found at a number of Kofun-period burial sites in Japan.

In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, much of Gaya gradually disintegrated due to pressure from the much more powerful Goguryeo kingdom. In the 6th century, Silla declared war on Gaya as a punishment for aiding Baekje during a war between the two kingdoms. Gaya - or what remained of it - lost this war and was absorbed into Silla.

The ancient kingdom of Gaya may be a relatively obscure kingdom and it may have disappeared into history, but it played a crucial role in the histories of Korea and Japan (and would continue to play an instrumental role in Silla after it annexed Gaya) through its iron-making technology. It also left behind remains of a civilization that have fascinated arachaeologists and historians for decades.

For more information about Gaya, check out the following: (Very in-depth article about the kingdom of Gaya.) (Post from Mugap's Korean Armour about Gaya armor. Includes other lesser-known armor from the region (Korean peninsula/China/Manchuria/Siberian Russia) as well. (Article about Gaya and its iron trade.) (Website about Gaya from the Gimhae National Museum in Gimhae, South Korea. Includes pictures of Gaya artifacts.)

*This blog post has referenced information from the following book:
Barnes, Gina L. China, Korea, and Japan: The Rise of Civilization in East Asia. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1993: pgs. 208, 232, 244.

(Gaya warrior image copyright: Dentarg. Used via Wikimedia Commons.)


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