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The startling discovery of a fully armored fifth-century warrior

About 1,500 years ago, a warrior was buried in Gyeongju City, South Korea, once the capital of the Silla Kingdom, one of the three kingdoms that fought for control of the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula between about 57 B.C. and A.D. 668. Was he killed in battle? Or did he survive this tumultuous era and die from old age? The warrior's flesh and bones have long since fully decayed, but the discovery of his armor, sword, and horse's armor has astounded archaeologists and focused attention on the military prowess of a kingdom previously known for its economic might. A team led by Ji Byeong-mok, director of the Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, found the armor in a royal necropolis in the Jjoksaem district, a nine-acre area containing the largest concentration of ancient Silla tombs dating from the fourth to the sixth century A.D. One of the longest continuous kingdoms in Asian history, Silla was a centralized society, especially known for its excellence in goldsmithing and for having built Cheomseongdae ("Star Gazing Tower"), the earliest astronomical observatory in east Asia, during the seventh century.

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In a burial in Gyeongju, South Korea, archaeologists uncovered armor of a fifth-century A warrior and his horse, as well as dozens of serving vessels used in traditional burial rituals. The set is the first complete and finest example of scale armor, made by connecting hundreds of small pieces of metal. (Courtesy Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)

Ji's team excavated the warrior's tomb (numbered C10) only 15 inches below a demolished house's foundation. The tomb has a large pit for a coffin and a smaller pit next to it for a box that contained the deceased warrior's belongings. Neither the box nor the wooden coffin survives, but in the large pit, excavators found the armor (they do not believe the horse was buried there because the tomb is relatively small). Although other Silla tombs have been found containing armor, C10 is the only one with both the armor of the warrior and his horse together in a single pit. Dating to the fifth century A.D., the discovery offers the most complete picture of Three Kingdoms Period battle dress. "We have only known about this type of warrior from paintings and murals from the Goguryeo tombs," says Lee Geon-mu, chief of Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration. The paintings show mounted warriors fully covered with armor, charging into battle with swords and flags flying from their helmets. "It's the first time that a full set of Silla or Goguryeo armor--warrior's and horse's--has actually been found. It's unprecedented not just in Korea, but all across east Asia," adds Lee.

Hyung-eun Kim is a reporter at JoongAng Daily, an English-language newspaper in Korea.