Tag Archives: Korean Metalsmithing

Bronze Stirrups from the Unified Shilla Period

When I came to the United States in 2006 and started learning about American culture and people, I noticed that many Americans are interested in antiques. I grew up in a traditional Korean architectural home until I was seven, and antiques were frequently encountered when I visited my grandparents’ house. They had old furniture, ceramics, utensils, tableware, books, etc, but I don’t remember hearing anything about honoring antiques. In fact, the state government in Korean history initially appeared in the 7th century BC in the Chinese record, and we have tons of artifacts left from the Paleolithic period. Starting from the late 1960s’, Korea was under development, and everything was getting modernized at a fast pace. I assumed we did not appreciate properly what was left behind through the time. I kind of felt ironic, and that motivated me to revisit my cultral heritage.

stirrups 1

Since ancient Koreans used bronze to cast weapons, tools, jewelry and everyday objects, it had been their favorite material until iron started substituting bronze around the 4th centurty BC. Iron was more appealing in terms of the durability and light weight. Imagine cavalry heavily armed with bronze weapons and armours, and the horse protected with a bronze helmet and saddle. Unified Silla spans from the late 7th century to the early 10th century, and this is the only pair made in bronze in this era to be passed down to present. In this sense, the pair of bronze stirrups from the Unified Silla period is a rare artifact.

stirrups 2

What makes this artifact unique is, in my opinion, originally finished with laquer on the surface. Laquer finish on bronze cast object was invented by the ancient Chinese to prevent corrosion on bronze tableware from getting in touch with food. However, the laquer paint on the stirrups served a different purpose: enhancing the durability of the material. Later, in China, Korea and Japan, laquer surface treatment is often used on wood objects to keep the material from decomposition as well as to provide rich colors.

stirrups 3

In addition, unlike any other stirrups observed in these days, the form of the artifact mimics those of shoe which I find interesting. It seems as if the artisan had put aesthetic on the same level with the function of the object. As it is shown in the close shot, the surface is decorated with patterns of flower and flame. They are elaborate and meaningful in Korean culture.

stirrups 4

Bronze Stirrups from the Unified Silla Period (8~9C)
Bronze, lacquer, cast.
14.7cm x 12.1cm x 14.9cm
Photos: Gyeongju National Museum

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This is how it begins…

Honestly, when I graduated college many years ago, I didn’t think I’d go back to school later in life and wind up doing metalsmithing and making jewelry. As a history major, I had several friends who were interested in art history, and one of them pursued graduate studies in the ancient Korean art. I still remember her saying how ancient artifacts, they were mostly created in metal, made her feel wonderful just by looking at them.

According to scholars, ancient Koreans knew how to cast bronze into weapons as early as the 10th century BC. I was blessed enough to grow up in a culture where metalwork was accessible in everyday life. My family owned brass bowls and silver utensils with enameled decoration until they were replaced with stainless steel material for convenience. As a custom, a new-born baby on her/his first birthday receives pure gold rings with prints individually weighed about 0.12 troy ounce from relatives and family friends. Field trip to a museum full of the ancient metal artifacts was a yearly routine for kids while in school.

Looking back, as I am now working in metal, I realize how great the influence was.  I desire to know where my metalsmithing DNA originates from.