A Closer Look at Ancient Korea

BaekjeAmbassadorFrom the first century BCE until the seventh century CE, the Korean peninsula experienced an unprecedented era of immense wealth, political power, and cultural efflorescence. Although the kingdoms of ancient Korea are not familiar to many researchers in Anglophone countries, the fields of early Korean history and archaeology are active and pertinent components of academic programs in East Asia, where it is recognized that an understanding and appreciation of the pre-historical and early historical periods are necessary for a proper grasp of Korea in an age of globalization.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Mark Byington, Founder and Project Director of the Early Korea Project at the Korea Institute, Harvard University, who has dedicated his life to the development of academic study of early Korean history and archaeology in North America.

JW: Dr. Mark Byington, thank you so much for speaking to the Ancient History Encyclopedia about the Early Korea Project, which was established at the Korea Institute, Harvard University, in 2006.

When most people think of “ancient East Asia,” they are likely to think of imperial China. Nevertheless, Korea has a rich history, and its archaeological sites include cemeteries with sophisticated burials, palace ruins, ancient centers of economic production, and impressive roads.

What was it that first attracted you to Korean history and archaeology, and what led you to create the Early Korea Project? If I understand correctly, you were first a computer science engineer and then became a historian!

MB: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with the Ancient History Encyclopedia, James. My interest in early Korean history goes back to the 1980s, when I was spending time in Korea, first with the U.S. Air Force in 1983-84, and then for several summers afterward during my college years, when I spent every other summer in Korea on my own. I was very interested in the history and culture of Korea, and for some reason gravitated very naturally toward the earliest historical periods. I do not recall exactly why I became so interested in early Korean history, but the interest intensified greatly while I was in college. I majored in computer science, but had a minor in Asian Studies and took many courses on Chinese and Japanese history and culture. There were no Korea-related course offerings at that time, but I had already studied Korean history on my own for a number of years. I then worked for a few years in the computer engineering field (my work involved getting IBM printers to print using East Asian character sets, so I spent a good deal of time in various parts of East Asia). But I spent nearly all of my leisure time studying early Korean history, and I spent four years translating the early history text, Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), into English, which gave me some competence in classical Chinese. During these years I also took courses in basic Japanese and Chinese, and I traveled to China, Korea, and Japan to visit historical sites for my own private research (and at my own expense).

I was not very satisfied with my career, and some of my college professors — who were aware of my activities — managed to convince me that I was in the wrong field. I decided to devote myself to the study of early Korean history, and submitted one application to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant to annotate my translation of the Samguk sagi, and another to Harvard University to pursue graduate studies there. As fate would have it, NEH said no, Harvard said yes, and I made what was by then the easy decision to change my career path and went to graduate school.

MarkByingtonKoguryoJian1994This was in 1994. By then it was very clear to me that it would be a mistake to attempt to research early Korean history without a good understanding of archaeology, so I arranged my graduate program to include both fields, and I was fortunate that my department was very accommodating and the faculty very supportive (an important factor as there were no faculty at Harvard or elsewhere in North America whose research and teaching focused on early Korean history). These were very satisfying years for me since I was able to immerse myself in the study of a subject that I had found so fascinating for the past decade. I have never regretted making the career change, though it did mean giving up a stable lifestyle and income for a few years. There were disappointing episodes as well: When I finished the doctoral program in 2003, I found that no department was interested in hiring a colleague who specializes in early Korean history and archaeology. This was very frustrating and demoralizing. After a few years of steadily diminishing prospects of securing a faculty position, I left the field and worked for a few months at a major banking corporation, which served to reinforce my conviction that I needed to find some way to get back into the field of early Korea.

“Personally, I see Korea as a very rich testing ground for any number of research fields, including those dealing with social evolution, such as the formation and collapse of states, material sciences–particularly involving metallurgy–and studies of religion, especially Buddhism…I suspect that Korea would represent a valuable resource for a variety of research fields in Western countries if the scholars who conduct that research had access to data from Korea.”

I had recently taken some courses at the Harvard Business School, which gave me the idea that it might be possible to develop my field of interest using a business approach. One of the problems I had faced in seeking employment in my field was that there was no field to speak of in North America! Early Korean history and archaeology had only a minimal presence in Western academia at that time. There was enough to feed the interest of those persistent few who already wanted to study that field, but there was no real foundation for the field in English that could be readily incorporated into a curriculum on East Asian history. I outlined what I felt were the reasons this field had not developed (and probably would not develop) in the Anglophone world, and worked out an arrangement of programs that would, in theory, circumvent the obstacles and allow the field to develop. I drafted a prospectus and named the collection of programs the Early Korea Project. I had intended to seek support for the Project as an independent organization, but the Korea Institute at Harvard University, with which I had been affiliated as a postdoctoral fellow, suggested that I lodge the Project with them.

I sought and secured funding from a number of organizations in Korea — the first two being the Korea Foundation and the Academy of Korean Studies – and then later secured a five-year grant from the newly-formed Northeast Asian History Foundation. This was fortuitous, as the Korea Foundation provided a multi-year grant to allow some operational stability, while the Academy of Korean Studies offered a grant to jump-start our programmatic activities. The Northeast Asian History Foundation then came in with a multi-year grant to support our many programs, including our workshops and publications. These initial grants are set to terminate within the next few months, but since the establishment of the Early Korea Project in late 2006, we have made much progress toward developing the fields of early Korean history, archaeology, and art history.

KoreaMapJW: The polities of ancient Korea — Koguryo, Baekje, Kaya, and Silla — were dynamic, commanding respect and influence in northeast Asia and beyond due to international trade via the Silk Road. Koguryo conquered large swaths of territory in what is present-day China and Russia, while Baekje and Silla maintained impressive government bureaucracies alongside royal courts that patronized the arts and sciences.

If there is one thing that everyone should know about ancient Korea, what is it? I believe that some in the West are aware of links between ancient Korea and Japan, but this is yet another area meriting further study.

MB: My response to this question is likely to change from time to time, as it is probably impossible to isolate a single most important aspect of ancient Korea. But one that occurs to me is the fact that the Korean peninsula of the early historic and prehistoric periods was home to polities and societies that played a very active role in interregional exchanges of various kinds in northeast Asia. Historical records give us some indications of this, particularly from around the 4th century CE and later, but archaeological data indicate this even more clearly and show that the Korean peninsula was a very important place from a very early period. Personally, I see Korea as a very rich testing ground for any number of research fields, including those dealing with social evolution, such as the formation and collapse of states, material sciences–particularly involving metallurgy–and studies of religion, especially Buddhism. And these just scratch the surface. I suspect that Korea would represent a valuable resource for a variety of research fields in Western countries if the scholars who conduct that research had access to data from Korea. That this does not often happen is due to language barriers and the occasional differences in fundamental ways of formulating problems and asking questions. These are problems that can be overcome with a little effort, but it takes some deliberate and sustained activity to become realized.

James, you mention the early links between Korea and Japan, which I think is one of the important areas that can be explored now. As you know, in the past this kind of research has been hampered by political and nationalistic obstacles; first by Japanese selective interpretation of early Korean history to suit its imperialist programs, and then by the Korean response, which has until recently meant a gross denial of any Japanese scholarship on the topic and a tendency to overcompensate for that scholarship in the form of interpretations that often dwelt on the fringes of reason. Today the situation is much improved, and professionals in Japan and Korea generally work very well together, though they may not agree on all things. In 2010, the Early Korea Project held a workshop series titled “Early Korea-Japan Interactions,” which yielded very promising results. The publication from this workshop is projected for summer or fall of 2014, and I think it will be a very useful and welcome resource for the study of this contentious subject. Readers will find that interactions between the peninsula and the archipelago were constant and deep, and that analyses of the more nuanced factors of such interchange tell us far more than studies focused only on early Japanese political involvement on the Korean peninsula, or on Korea’s role as a point of origin or a conduit for transmission of cultural elements to ancient Japan.

kayaPressapochista15JW: Research on topics related to ancient Korean history, art, and archaeology is woefully under-represented in Anglophone countries. What has the Early Korea Project done to counteract this glaring void, Dr. Byington?

MB: I think it is valid to say that the Early Korea Project was at its core a product of my own frustration over the poor state of this field in North America and the difficulty of landing a job that would allow me to continue my research, and of my own strong desire not to abandon the field. The support of the Korea Institute at Harvard University and the generous funding from the organizations in Korea permitted the realization of the Early Korea Project.

When the Early Korea Project was first established in 2006, there were very few scholars in North America researching early Korean history or archaeology, and there were very few publications in English on those topics. Those that were available were either prone to becoming quickly out of date or were based on translations from Korean that were lacking in basic context, poorly translated, or based on fringe scholarship. Among the first tasks of the Early Korea Project was to assemble those few scholars in North America whose research actively focused on early Korea–there were three of us at first, soon joined by a fourth–and we met to discuss the problems I have already mentioned and various solutions. We organized plans for several workshop sequences, each of which was to focus on a certain important subject in early Korean history or archaeology, and we put together for each a list of potential participants from among specialists in Korea and elsewhere in East Asia. These workshops are designed to produce publications that represent current understanding of the subjects being treated, and written for western readers. We were, in essence, carefully outlining the foundation of a new field in English. The results of these workshops, which occur at a rate of about one sequence a year, are published in a volume of the Early Korea Project Occasional Series. The first volume of this series was published in 2009, and two more will be published in the late summer of 2013.

EarlyKorea1coverBesides the Occasional Series, I edit a publication called Early Korea, which is designed to resemble a journal but is in reality an edited serial, each of which contains about three articles on a given theme selected for that volume, along with about three other articles on important research or on the state of the field itself in Korea. To date we have published three volumes of Early Korea, with two more in the planning stages. While the Occasional Series is intended to present focused scholarship on a single selected subject, Early Korea is designed to offer a more summary treatment on the selected theme, as well as materials that provide an understanding of how the fields of early history, archaeology, and art history function in Korea. We also provide some information on the scholars who contribute to these publications, to allow readers to associate the scholarship “with a face,” so to speak. Most of the articles and chapters in our publications are translated from East Asian languages, primarily Korean, so it takes quite a lot of work to get them properly rendered in English–this involves not only the translation of the text into English, but also the interpretation of basic ideas and scholarly conventions, involving discussions with respective authors. I think we have done a good job in this respect, though we are constantly looking for ways to improve the process.

The Early Korea Project workshops and lectures have created a presence for the early Korea field at Harvard, and we have built up a fairly active local community of scholars interested in some aspect or other of early Korea. But the publications have a much broader reach, and many of them, particularly the Early Korea volumes, are now being used in university classrooms. This is very significant, in that it indicates that we are beginning to make progress in building that foundation for studies in English on early Korean history and archaeology that has been lacking in the past. Another hopeful sign is the fact that we now have a substantial cohort of scholars, including many graduate students, whose work promises good things for the Early Korea field.

JW: What are your plans for the Early Korea Project moving forward in time? As I understand, it has its own channel on Vimeo and manages social media pages on Twitter and Facebook. Are you eager to attract an even larger audience through these outlets?

Bifyu5sillaMB: Yes, the Vimeo page is actually run by the Korea Institute, though the Early Korea Project has its own space there. We do have an outreach mission that involves making the results of our programs broadly available through a variety of media. Many of our lectures and workshops have been recorded, and we hope to make more of these available through Vimeo in the future. We were also very gratified to find that our Facebook and Twitter spaces have a broad following, which reinforces both our conviction that there is a place for early Korea in western scholarship and our motivation for pushing ahead. After all, the Early Korea Project will not succeed, ultimately, unless we are able to make our resources as broadly accessible as possible.

The Early Korea Project is, however, approaching a crossroads as our initial multi-year grants are due to end early in 2014. Ideally, we would like to secure grant renewals so that we may continue our work, and there is much support for this in various quarters. There are also a large number of obstacles and limiting factors that make this an uphill battle. Some of those obstacles are local, and some are in Korea. None of them is insurmountable, but success will depend on the right combination of resources, funding opportunities, and timing. I am optimistic that things will work out, though at the present time, I am unable to say with confidence what form the Project will take from next year. The Early Korea Project depends entirely on outside funding, and we must operate within the bounds of policy at Harvard, and the ways that these two factors are negotiated will determine what happens with the Early Korea Project from 2014. There is reason for optimism, but I suspect that the future shape of the Project will not be revealed to me until the last possible moment!

Goguryeo1JW: Before concluding Dr. Byington, I wanted to ask about a particular issues related to early Korea and those who study it; last year, a Chinese farmer discovered a Koguryo stele in a riverbed at Maxiangou, in the western part of Ji’an, in Jilin Province, China. Although the surface of the stele was badly worn, Chinese archaeologists deciphered 140 characters.

Could you contextualize the importance of this find for our readers, and comment on why the discovery of this stele caused such a stir in South Korea and China?

MB: This was a particularly exciting discovery for me since most of my earlier research dealt with Koguryo. The find in itself is important because it represents a rare addition to the thin corpus of surviving written materials produced by the Koguryo kingdom. Nevertheless, interest in this stele goes far beyond its scholarly value, and this is because anything associated with Koguryo is today viewed in context of the so-called “history dispute” that unfolded late in 2003 between South Korea and China over the ownership of Koguryo history. I will not go into detail here because it is a very involved and complicated matter, but the bruised relations between South Korea and China over Koguryo have created ongoing distrust and suspicion on both sides of the dispute. I should mention that scholars who work on Koguryo in South Korea and China generally tend to be more aware of the complexities of the dispute and are able to see through most of the propaganda, while the news media tend to sensationalize the issue and paint things in stark terms–this is perhaps not surprising. So, when the discovery of the stele was announced in the Chinese press, the South Korean press responded with a sense of alarm based on fear that Chinese scholars might interpret the inscription (or even doctor the inscription) in order to further the claim that Koguryo belonged to China. When it became known that a team of specialists in China were engaged in closed-door meetings to discuss the inscription, some South Korean media reports smelled conspiracy and political interference. I think that this is excessive since these kinds of closed meetings are the norm in China, and the few interpretations of the inscription made public so far do not seem to be steering readers towards the view that Koguryo was somehow Chinese.

EKParchaeologyworkshop2010On the other hand, I should point out that there is a basis for suspicion on the part of the Korean side of the dispute as China’s infamous Northeast Project did favor the highly politicized view–arrived at by very questionable logic–that Koguryo was part of early China. But not every publicized report in China is designed to further that interpretation, and I think that many of the South Korean media reports represent a failure to understand how things work in China and, perhaps, a failure to comprehend what some Chinese media reports are actually reporting. There was a similar flash of outrage last year when the South Korean media responded to Chinese announcements of the discovery of portions of the “Great Wall” in northeastern China. Although I did not follow up on this in detail, I was aware of the discoveries, and I suspect that the outrage was prompted both by faulty reporting in China (by reporters who apparently failed to understand the actual nature of the discoveries), and by misunderstandings on the part of the South Korean media. I think this episode faded into the distance fairly quickly once the nature of the misunderstanding was realized, but it points to an ongoing problem that affects scholarly work on Koguryo and other aspects of the early history of Korea and northeastern China.

JW: Dr. Byington, I thank you again for speaking with us. We hope that the Early Korea Project continues its work for many years to come, and we look forward to learning much from the Project as it shares important research.

MB: Thank you very much for this opportunity, and best wishes for the continued success of the Ancient History Encyclopedia and the valuable resources it provides!

Image Credits:

  1. Image of an ambassador from Baekje in China, c. 526-539 CE. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain–in the USA and elsewhere–because its copyright has expired. Image created by Ryuch, 2008.
  2. Photograph of Dr. Mark E. Byington at Koguryo tombs in Ji’an, China, 1994. Image: courtesy of Dr. Mark E. Byington.
  3. Map of Korean’s ancient “Three Kingdoms,” c. 475 CE. This map shows the zenith of Koguryo. (Note that the spellings of the countries and cities may differ significantly in different sources.) This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Image created by Chris 73, 2004-2013.
  4. A horn-shaped cup from Kaya, c. 400-600 CE. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image created by pressapochista, 2006.
  5. Early Korea (journal cover). Image: courtesy of Dr. Mark E. Byington.
  6. A gold ornament excavated from a tomb from the Early Silla period, 57 BCE-654 CE. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image created by bifyu, 2006.
  7. This Gakjeochong mural from a Koguryo tomb depicts a “ssireum” or wrestling competition, c. 550 CE. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain–in the USA and elsewhere–because its copyright has expired. Image created in 2007.
  8. Photograph of an EKP archaeology workshop, 2010. Image: courtesy of Dr. Mark E. Byington.
  9. Photograph of Dr. Mark E. Byington at Yalu River, in China, with North Korea in background (profile picture). Image: courtesy of Dr. Mark E. Byington.

MarkByingtonYaluRiverDr. Mark E. Byington, Founder and Project Director of the Early Korea Project at the Korea Institute, Harvard University, serves also as editor of Early Korea, an edited serial publication focused on early Korean history and archaeology. He is also the series editor for the Early Korea Project Occasional Series. He received an AM degree from the Regional Studies East Asia program at Harvard (1996) and a PhD degree from the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard (2003), with a research focus on the early history and archaeology of the Korean peninsula and northeastern China. His primary research interest centers on the formation and development of early Korean states, particularly Koguryo and Puyo. In 1997 and 1998, he conducted research at Jilin University in Northeast China with a focus on the history and archaeology of the Puyo and Koguryo states. In 2006, he established the Early Korea Project at Harvard University to concentrate resources toward the development of the fields of early Korean history and archaeology in the English language. In the process of this establishment, he secured multi-year grants from the Korea Foundation, the Academy of Korean Studies and the Northeast Asian History Foundation. He taught a course titled “Adventures in Early Korean History and Archaeology” for the Harvard Summer School program held at Ewha University in Seoul in 2009. In addition to directing the Early Korea Project, he is a lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, where he teaches courses on Korean history and archaeology.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Mark Byington, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. Special thanks is extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.