The Prehistory and Ancient History section displays artifacts that represent some of the earliest evidence of Korean civilization and culture, from stone tools of the Paleolithic age to gold jewelry of the Silla Kingdom and stone monoliths of the Balhae era, with each room documenting those aspects that uniquely define each of Korea's different periods of ancient history.
The Paleolithic Age marks the cultural genesis of humanity, when the first humans separated themselves from their anthropoid relatives by beginning to make tools and use fire. The Korean Peninsula has been inhabited by humans for around 700,000 years. Its earliest inhabitants were hunters and gatherers who moved from place to place in search of food, and usually lived in caves or near rivers.
Depending on the progress of human evolution and the development of tools, the Paleolithic Age can be divided into three different periods—the early, middle, and late Paleolithic. The early Paleolithic was the period of Homo erectus (“upright human”), who used large stone tools with various functions, including stone choppers and hand axes. The middle Paleolithic was marked by the rise of Homo sapiens (“wise human”), denoted by a wider range of smaller stone tools with more differentiated functions. The latter period is dominated by Homo sapiens sapiens, also known as anatomically modern humans (AMH). During this period, the first stone blades appeared, and the efficacy of stone tools and their manufacturing processes continued to develop. Soon, more sophisticated tools emerged, as people combined small blades with branches or animal horns.
Excavations of late Paleolithic sites on the Korean Peninsula have uncovered choppers with pointed ends (sumbezzirugaes), which are small stone blades commonly found in Northeast Asia. Such discoveries represent crucial evidence of exchange with neighboring regions.
In the Neolithic Age (8000 BCE – 1400 BCE), people began adapting to the changing natural environment after the Ice Age. This period is marked by the creation of earthenware pieces and ground stone tools, and the foundation of the first settlements. Thus far, about 400 Neolithic ruins have been found throughout Korea, in the form of dwellings, tombs, shell mounds, and more. The best-known ruins include Amsa-dong (Seoul), Osan-ri (Yangyang, Gangwon-do), and Dongsam-dong (Busan).
Neolithic people built dugout huts near seas or rivers, where food and water were most abundant. They actively practiced fishing, hunting, and gathering wild plants. This period also saw the introduction of the first crude forms of agriculture with the cultivation of Italian millet and common millet. Tools and weapons made from ground stone and bone enhanced people’s ability to gather food, while earthenware enabled them to store and cook food. They wore simple forms of clothing, made from woven thread or animal skins, and decorated themselves with jade, animal bones, horns, and shells. They actively engaged with various groups around the Japanese archipelago, Northeast China, and the Maritime Province.
In Korea, the Bronze Age began around the 15th century BCE, with the everyday use of mumun pottery, ground stone tools, and wooden tools. During this period, only a few people possessed bronze tools, which served either as symbols of authority or as ritual instruments. Agriculture continued to develop, including the beginning of rice farming, which led to the formation of larger settlements that resembled the rural villages of today. Notably, this era also saw the establishment of social classes, and the appearance of the first Korean nation of Gojoseon.
Gojoseon lasted until the Iron Age, flourishing mainly in the northwest of the Korean Peninsula, and challenging the Yan, Qin, and Han Dynasties of China. In fact, Gojoseon was powerful enough to defeat the Han in an early conflict of a war that lasted about a year. Nevertheless, the prolonged war eventually triggered internal strife that brought on the collapse of Gojoseon in 108 BCE. Around the same time that Gojoseon fell, smaller dominions like Buyeo, Goguryeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and Samhan were gaining power and territory in different regions of the Korean Peninsula.
After the fall of Gojoseon (108 BCE), the Korean Peninsula was divided among a number of local dominions. Buyeo (2 BCE – 494 CE) and Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE) ruled the northeastern area near China, with Okjeo and Dongye also occupying northern areas, while the central part of the peninsula was controlled by Samhan, which comprised the confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. The levels of social development of these early civilizations varied according to their national power and location. Over time, Buyeo and Goguryeo grew into states by asserting their capabilities in both culture and warfare. As a result of various conflicts, Goguryeo took control of Okjeo and Dongye, while Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan integrated into Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), Silla (57 BCE – 676 CE), and Gaya (42-562 CE).
The Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE – 668 CE) arose along the middle reaches of the Amnokgang (Yalu). By conquering neighboring regions, the kingdom eventually encompassed a huge area, from the Liao River to the central part of the Korean Peninsula. While maintaining its own cultural traditions, Goguryeo also actively embraced diverse cultures from China, as well as Central and Northern Asia. Thus, Goguryeo culture was both dynamic and practical, and it exerted tremendous influence on Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), Silla (57 BCE – 676 CE) and Gaya (42-562 CE), and even crossed the sea into Japan.
Tomb murals of Goguryeo are among the internationally recognized cultural legacies of Korea. The most frequent themes of the murals are daily customs, decorative patterns, and the guardian deities of the four directions.
Goguryeo culture was passed on to Unified Silla (676-935 CE) and Balhae (698-926 CE), and thus formed the backbone of Korean culture.
Baekje was a state that originated from Baekje country which was established in the Hangang basin by Buyeo settlers gradually integrated Mahan regions . After that, as the state moved its capital to Ungjin (Gongju at present), and Sabi (Buyeo at present). It flourished as a unique culture.
The Hanseon period (18 BC – 475 AD) is marked by the establishment of Baekje culture, which was open and international. These characteristics are re-confirmed by dwelling sites such as Seokchon-dong Tomb, Monchontoseong (castle) and Pungnaptoseong (castle), etc. During the Ungjin Period (475-538), the state actively embraced advanced Chinese civilization and developed into a cultural power. It can be conjectured by the Royal Tomb of King Muryeong and the excavated artifacts that indicate the relationship with the Southern Dynasty of China. Baekje culture reached its summit in the Sabi Period (538-660) when original plastic arts and sophisticated handicraft technologies were fully developed. It was during this period that Baekje Incense Burner, the very epitome of the spiritual world and artistic abilities of the Baekje people, was made.
On the other hand, Baekje culture was transmitted to ancient Japan from the early years and exerted an influence on the formation of the Ancient Asuka Period in Japan.
The Gaya Confederacy (42-562 CE) developed thanks to the abundant iron resources available in the mid- to lower regions of the Nakdonggang, formerly Byeonhan territory. In its early stages, Gaya was centered around Geumgwan Gaya in the Gimhae area of Gyeongsangnam-do, which became a hub of international trade, providing iron to Nangnang and ancient Japan via sea routes. In the late 3rd century CE, the region increased its power by embracing northern civilization, causing the center of activity to move northward to Dae Gaya in the Goryeong area of Gyeongsangbuk-do. Excavations of Gaya sites have yielded pottery inscribed with the “Great King” (大王), as well as flamboyant gold crowns, demonstrating that the state was strong enough to compete against Silla and Baekje.
Gaya culture is characterized by stone chamber tombs that were dug vertically, various pottery with smooth curves, a proliferation of iron objects and weapons, and gold and silver inlay techniques. In particular, artifacts excavated from Gaya tombs in Daeseong-dong (Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do); Dohang-ri (Haman, Gyeongsangnam-do); Okjeon (Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do); and Jisan-ri (Goryeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do) illustrate the magnificence of Gaya culture.
The Silla Kingdom (57 BCE – 676 CE) originated from the state of Saro in the Gyeongju region, and comprised 12 Jinhan chiefdoms from the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula. The kingdom gradually expanded its territory by annexing small neighboring states, before officially declaring Silla laws in the 6th century CE. Around that time, the state accepted Buddhism as a governing belief system, which henceforth laid the foundation for the kingdom’s political and moral thoughts and actions. In 562 CE, Silla annexed Dae Gaya, paving the way for unification.
Silla culture is represented by its Buddhist relics, as well as distinctive wooden chamber tombs covered by stone mounds. Gold crowns and earrings excavated from such wooden tombs are among the most splendid and impressive gold handcrafts in the world, earning Silla the title of “The Country of Gold.” Silla society was profoundly influenced by the bone rank system (a hereditary caste system) and Buddhism, which dominated both social law and spiritual belief.
Importantly, Silla culture had international aspects, including overseas exchange, as evidenced by foreign artifacts excavated from the Gyeongju region, as well as traces of western culture found in burial mound figures.
The Unified Silla Period (676-935 CE) began when Silla occupied the region stretching from the Daedonggang south to Wonsan Bay, conquering Baekje and Goguryeo to form a unified nation-state. The capital city of Gyeongju took the form of a castle town that organized and governed all the neighboring settlements. Gyeongju grew into an international city through active exchange with Southwest Asia, the Tang Dynasty of China, and Japan, and the advanced culture of the capital city gradually diffused into the local areas. During the Unified Silla Period, Buddhism brought about major changes in society and culture. Cremation became the preferred funerary practice, with burial urns replacing tombs. Major Buddhist architecture, such as Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto were built. By integrating the cultures of Goguryeo and Baekje, Unified Silla formed the basis for a national culture.
Balhae (698-926 CE) was established by Dae Jo-yeong, a former military general, who gathered about 8000 migrants from Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE) in the area around Mount Dongmou. At its height, Balhae occupied an enormous territory encompassing the entire Korean Peninsula north of the Daedonggang, as well as Liaoning (遼寧省), Jilin (吉林省), and Heilongjang (黑龍江省) in China, and the Maritime Province of Russia. Balhae used a wide range of cultural institutions to actively cultivate an advanced civilization, leading China to praise it as the “thriving nation of the Eastern Sea.”
To effectively rule such a huge territory, Balhae had five gyeong (provinces) and moved its capital city several times. The capital cities of Sanggyeong, Junggyeong, and Donggyeong all featured impressive architecture and exquisite artwork, such as roof tiles, bricks, dragon heads, pottery, weapons, and various Buddhist sculptures.
Balhae enjoyed a vibrant exchange with Unified Silla, as well as the Tang Dynasty and Japan. Following the fall of Balhae, some of its citizens joined Goryeo (918-1392), securing Balhae’s legacy in Korean history.