Talk about “ancient big stones” and the first place that comes to mind is England’s Stonehenge. While Europe is home to a lot of similar structures ranging from the menhirs (free-standing large stone) in France to complex megalithic sites like those in Turkey and Malta, Asia also has a few exceptional megaliths but hardly anyone talks about them.
An interesting kind of megalith is the dolmen. Although they are neither the fanciest nor the most sophisticated structures around, the mysteries surrounding dolmens, as well as their ages and sizes, are more than enough to put some of them in my bucket list.
Dolmens are megalithic structures that mark graves of pre-historic people, mostly from the Bronze Age. While dolmens exist in many countries, the Korean peninsula is said to be the home to almost 40 percent of all the identified dolmens in the world! Most of them contain invaluable artifacts, as well as clues, that help in better understanding of how the earlier people lived and how they treated their dead. As a nod to this noteworthy cultural patrimony, three dolmen sites, namely, Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa, were given Unesco World Heritage Site statuses in 2000.
Historic island dotted with dolmens
A day before World Heritage Day (April 18th) in 2019, I managed to check out the dolmens in Ganghwa island. A little over an hour from the capital Seoul, Ganghwa lies along the border of South Korea and North Korea. The Ganghwa dolmens are scattered across the island and are grouped into clusters. The island is known for having the earliest northern table-type dolmen in the Korean peninsula, characterized by having at least two upright stones supporting an even larger capstone. The dolmen cluster in Bugeon village is home to the nearly 200-ton dolmen officially named Bugeulli jiseok dolmen. The dolmen cluster in Osang village lies a few kilometers away and it definitely can be reached on foot.
Most visits to Bugeon village are rather fast and predictable: visitors go near to the Bugeulli jiseok dolmen, take a photo or two, go around it, and then move on to their next destination. While there is a map indicating that there are 16 more dolmens nearby, no one seems to really pay attention to them. The sprawling dolmen park also underwent some landscaping extensions in 2019 to include and highlight four more massive dolmens not even 50 meters away from the famous big one, in the hope that this would encourage others to explore them too and spend more time in the site.
Ignored hill with hidden megaliths
The weather during my visit was so unpleasant that I just had to make the best out of it—Seoul at that time was damp and cold. I decided to explore the surrounding areas and then walked towards a hill that is said to contain the other dolmens I never knew even exist before seeing the largely ignored map.
The trek is uncomplicated and can be done in an hour. However, as expected, it did not seem to be a popular excursion among visitors to the site, so much so that I never encountered a single person at all on the hill. The trek afforded me close encounters with wild Korean water deer, a few cute black fur squirrels, and some striking feathered friends. To be in the company of old trees in a quiet corner of an island in springtime can easily be one of the best ways to spend one’s holiday! Indeed, there is joy and excitement in exploring remote places on your own sometimes.
One interesting dolmen on the hillside clearly shows lines of carved holes, indicating the method the Bronze Age builders used in cutting these large stones. They would have placed wooden stakes in the holes and later swelling them by pouring water. The pressure created by the expanding wood would cause the stone to break along the line of holes created. This technique is no different from how they did it on the megaliths in Egypt or Peru, and it is in fact still widely used today by stone cutters. Although most of the dolmens along this trail are the unsupported capstone type, which is characterized by a big stone laid directly on top of an underground chamber, there are a few table-type ones that unfortunately have already collapsed. Nevertheless, all dolmens are properly marked and fenced, which only means that they are highly valued.
While I enjoyed some 15 minutes looking at and appreciating the well-known Bugeulli jiseok dolmen, I found the little adventure in the outskirts to be more thrilling, memorable and fulfilling. I have yet to see the other two dolmen groups Gochang and Hwasun down south, which some say may be even more impressive. But for now, I can say that I have been well-contented with what I managed to witness and admire in Ganghwa.
Image courtesy of Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero