National Museum to Exhibit Ancient Earthen Vessels and Figurines

Date May 25, 2023

‘Companions on the Eternal Journey’

Shedding Fresh Light on Meaning Beyond Form


The National Museum of Korea will open an exhibition of figurative pottery and clay figurine-decorated pottery from the ancient kingdoms of Silla and Gaya on May 26, highlighting their symbolic usage in funerary rituals and the journey of the deceased to the afterlife. 

The exhibition, entitled “Companions on the Eternal Journey: Earthenware Figurines and Vessels from Ancient Korea,” will feature 332 artifacts, including earthen vessels modeled after humans, animals and various objects, or decorated with clay figurines. The exhibition will end on October 9.

“Figurative pottery and clay figurine-decorated pottery have so far attracted attention largely for their intriguing forms,” said Yoon Sung Yong, director general of the National Museum of Korea. “This exhibition will be an opportunity to go beyond shapes and cast fresh light on what underlies the production and usage of these potteries.”

The exhibition is designed to convey the meaning of the ancient clay figurines with the use of modern media, museum officials explained. To enable visitors to closely observe the small figurines, they said, transparent OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens are installed to maximize the impact of the displays.

The artifacts to be showcased were mostly found in tombs of Silla (57 BCE-935 CE) and Gaya (42-562 CE) in southeastern Korea. They are believed to have been ritual ware and funerary gifts to help lead the deceased to heaven, where they would continue their lives.

Among the exhibits are 15 state-designated National Treasures and Treasures. The exhibition consists of two parts: “Gifts for Eternal Life” and “Stories of Farewell.”


Gifts for Eternal Life, Figurative Pottery in Diverse Vessel Forms 

Part I includes figurative earthen vessels in the shapes of animals and objects as well as some human figures. They are hollow inside, designed to contain and pour liquid. Beyond functional purposes to be used in funerary rites, the vessels were supposedly intended to accompany the souls of the deceased on their journey to next life.

Starting with a set of vessels recently excavated from Tomb No. 45 on Malisan Mountain in Haman, Gyeongsangnam-do Province, designated as Treasures in 2022, Part I displays figurative vessels under three themes: “Connecting with Heaven,” “Journeying Together” and “Providing Peaceful Rest.”

Bird-shaped vessels prevail among the artifacts displayed under the first theme, “Connecting with Heaven.” Birds were considered companions of deceased souls on their journey to life after death. Ducks were the most common bird depicted in the earliest figurative vessels, and according to historical records, feathers were used in funerals because of their symbolic meaning.

Earthen vessels in bird shapes have been unearthed in the broadest areas, though their methods of expression vary depending on the period, region and symbolism. The exhibition includes some 20 bird-shaped vessels.

Another eye-catching artifact in this section is an earthen vessel in the shape of auspicious animal unearthed from the tomb of Michuwangneung District in Gyeongju, the capital of Silla. The auspicious animal is an imaginary animal with a dragon head and turtle body. It was considered a propitious guide on the journey to heaven. The vessel is designated a National Treasure.

Horn cups are also on display, indicating the symbolic power of soaring animal horns to connect with heaven.

Artifacts exhibited under the second theme, “Journeying Together,” include vessels shaped to resemble a shoe, horse, boat and cart, which were considered helpful in the journey of the departed souls to their next lives. Also on display here are two earthen vessels modeled after a man riding a horse, one unearthed from Geumryeongchong Tomb in Gyeongju.

Earthen vessels modeled after a horse or mounted warrior express armors and horse harnesses of the time. Boat-shaped vessels are so realistic that difference between offshore and ocean boats can be discerned. These figurative vessels dating from the 5th century show aspects of the society at the time.

The third theme, “Providing Peaceful Rest,” brings together house- and lamp-shaped vessels, suggesting the warmth, comfort and affluence to be enjoyed in the netherworld. Visitors will be invited into a large, house-shaped structure to watch media-generated the light of lamp and commune with people who lived during the era when the vessels were made.


Stories of Farewell, Clay Figurines Restored in Single Narrative Scene

Part II spotlights a storytelling scene comprising restorations of 97 earthen vessels decorated with clay figurines, which were retrieved from archaeological sites around Hwangnam-dong, Gyeongju, in 1926 during the colonial period.

Under the title, “Stories of Farewell,” the spectacular narrative scene consists of three sections, each delivering different aspects of the thoughts and attitudes of Silla people toward death. This is the first attempt to reinterpret the meanings of clay figurines that embellished ancient earthenware.

Ancient clay figurines have so far been introduced mostly as individual artifacts, separated from the potteries on the surface of which they were applied, such as on the lid of a mounted dish or around the shoulder of a long-necked jar. These potteries, along with figurative vessels used in funerary rituals, were placed in tombs as burial gifts.

Part II starts with an introduction to many potteries embellished with clay figurines recently found in Tomb No. 6 in Jjoksaem District B, Gyeongju, and the nearby archaeological sites of Hwangnam-dong. The latter sites have yielded the largest number of clay figurines to date.

The first section, named “Farewell Festival,” illustrates communal rites and procession conducted by mourners bidding farewell to their fellow community members. Figurines of musicians and dancers often appear, and incised images reflects the procession scene.

The procession of Silla, the first ever portrayed in this fashion, features men riding auspicious animals like dragons, a deer, a dog, and men riding horses, parading in rows.

The second section, “Every Moment Together,” symbolically depicts the everyday lives of people and how they envision afterlife, such as regeneration, resurrection, procreation and guidance for the soul. Scenes of hunting, horse riding and laboring express their wishes for the continuity of life. Clay figurines of some 50 kinds of animals represent a diversity of symbols related with funerary rituals.

“A Completed Story” is the theme of the third section. It is devoted to two long-necked jars decorated with clay figurines, both designated National Treasures. The human and animal figurines unfold a panorama, with human characters regularly interspersed by repetitions of a snake biting a frog’s hind leg.


The National Museum of Korea will host a series of lectures and colloquia on the significance of figurative pottery and clay figurine-decorated pottery. The schedule of these events will be posted on the museum’s website later.

For more information concerning the exhibition: please contact Lee Sang-mi, curator at the History and Archaeology Division (02-2077-9459)