In 2000, dolmen sites in South Korea’s Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa made UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Forty percent of all of the world’s dolmens are found on the Korean Peninsula, the center of Megalithic culture.
The Korean word for dolmen is goindol, meaning “the propped stone.” Setting up huge stone slabs required a lot of manpower, so it is assumed that dolmens were the tombs of the ruling class during the Bronze Age when different classes began to emerge.
There are 70,000 dolmens throughout the world, with over 30,000 discovered in Korea. Dolmens were built in Korea from around 1000 B.C. They are located near the western and southern coasts, as well as at large river basins. Dolmens are found all across the Korean Peninsula. But these three particular regions—Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa—were included in the World Heritage list because they are valuable remains. These dolmen remains explain how the prehistoric stone monuments appeared and changed over time.
In the Gochang dolmen site, dolmens come in three different shapes. In the “table type,” two stone slabs are set up and a wide capstone is laid on top.
The “go-board type” features small supporting stones erected between an underground chamber and a large capstone on the ground.
And finally in the “capstone type,” an underground chamber is covered with a capstone without any supporting stones.
The three types of dolmens are all found in Gochang.
“Oh, judging from this enormous capstone, I’m sure it is the table type dolmen, with two long stones propping up the capstone.”
“Look, there are more dolmens here. They are arranged in two rows in the direction of Gochangcheon Stream.”
“It’s hard to believe that dolmens have been found one after another in the Sanggap-ri area in Gochang. This is a wonderful opportunity to study the stonework techniques and society of the Bronze Age. Are those dolmens the table type, too?”
“Actually, they all look different. One dolmen has four supporting stones, with a capstone on top. But, in another dolmen, a capstone is laid directly on the buried stones.”
In 1965, three dolmens were discovered in excavation work in the Gochang dolmen site, North Jeollado Province. Afterwards, more dolmens were excavated steadily. About 2,000 dolmens are known to exist in the Gochang area. Among them, 447 were registered as World Heritage. Diverse types of dolmens are found in Gochang, the world’s largest cluster of dolmens.
While 447 dolmens are densely clustered in the 1.8-kilometer section in Gochang, more than 500 dolmens are scattered throughout the 10-kilometer section in the Hwasun dolmen site in South Jeollado Province.
“I can’t believe there are so many dolmens in a valley less than two kilometers away from Jiseokcheon Stream. It’s unbelievable.”
“And the stones that were built 3,000 years ago are still in their original state.”
“This is an amazing discovery. Hwasun is a hidden treasure trove of dolmens.”
The Hwasun dolmen site was first discovered in 1995. Due to their hard-to-access location, many of the dolmens there are in relatively good condition.
Interestingly, a quarry was found there, something that is difficult to find in any other dolmen site in the world. At the quarry, the capstones are seen still in the state of being quarried, and there are traces of cutting a rock along the grain, evenly spaced apart. And the stone that is similar in size to the dent in the rock, presumably split from the rock, still remains. The quarry is an important site that shows the dolmen-building process.
In the Ganghwa dolmen site in Incheon City, about 130 dolmens are found around Mount Goryeo. Compared to dolmens in other regions in Korea, most pieces here are situated at a relatively higher level of 250~350 meters above sea level. That is why these dolmens are drawing attention from scholars.
“The dolmen in Gocheon-ri in Ganghwa stands at 280 meters above sea level. Its capstone is 3.35 meters wide and 2.47 meters long. This large stone was moved to the high hills, reflecting that a tribal leader created a big grave to demonstrate his ability.”
“I agree this dolmen was the symbol of power. But, in the case of the dolmen in Bugeun-ri in Ganghwa, the capstone weighs 80 tons and is more than 7 meters in length. It would have taken at least 500 adult men to make a dolmen that large. But no graves were found in this dolmen of gigantic size. So, we cannot rule out the possibility that the dolmen was actually an altar used for holding rituals.”
Dolmens in Ganghwa are harboring many intriguing secrets about why and how people in the Bronze Age built those huge rocks and moved them to the high hills. Dolmens in Hwasun serve as a living educational venue where one can learn about the dolmen culture. And dolmens in Gochang show what a cluster of dolmens is like. Dolmens in Korea illustrate how humans lived in prehistoric times and provide an important key to understanding the Bronze Age.