Early Korean Ceramics at the Honolulu Academy of Arts: The Gaya Confederacy

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    Jar, Korea, Three Kingdoms period, Gaya region, 4th centuryStoneware, Gift of Dr. Jack Paldi, Jill Paldi, and Camille Paldi, 1986 (5535.1)

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    Covered Pedestal Cup, Korea, Three Kingdoms period, Gaya region, 5th-6th century, Stoneware, Purchase, 1969 (3604.1)

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June 11, 2009 - February 14, 2010
Gallery 14

Exhibition Overview

In the first centuries of the Common Era, the Korean peninsula underwent a fundamental shift. As political power was gradually consolidated, three states began to emerge: the Goguryeo kingdom in the north (traditional dates 37 BC-668 AD), the Baekje kingdom (traditional dates 18 BC-660 AD) in the southwest, and the Silla kingdom in the southeast (traditional dates 57 BC-935 AD). These states struggled to dominate the peninsula, sometimes entering into temporary alliances with the early polities of Japan, and with the various powers that controlled China, as they vied to conquer each other. However, unity remained elusive until Silla defeated Baekje, and then Goguryeo, with the aid of Chinese troops in the 7th century. Even then, remnants of the Goguryeo kingdom were reborn as Balhae (698-926 AD) in the north, and true unification was not achieved until the rise of the Goryeo kingdom (918-1392 AD) in the 10th century.

Although the period from the 1st to the 7th centuries is known to history as the Three Kingdoms, significant stretches of territory along the west side of the Nakdong River were independent of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla for most of this time. Ruled by a group of culturally related city-states that often warred with each other (and the Three Kingdoms), this region was known as the Gaya Confederacy (traditional dates 42-562 AD). Although the Gaya states were of great historical importance, they mark one of the most enigmatic periods in Korean history, and most of what is known about Gaya has resulted from archeological excavations conducted since the 1970s. Located at the southern end of the Korean peninsula along the Nakdong, Gaya settlements were well-situated for both regional and international trade, and archeological evidence has revealed a great deal of exchange between Gaya and Japan. In particular, the Gaya area was rich in iron, and Gaya appears to have been a major source from which Japan acquired this material and the technological advances it allowed. Gaya also played an important role in the dissemination to Japan of new ceramic technologies introduced from China into Korea early in the Common Era, and the gray-bodied stoneware known as sueki that characterizes Japanese ceramics of the Kofun period (traditional dates ca. 250-538 AD) clearly shows the influence of Gaya wares.

While the Honolulu Academy of Arts is world-renowned for its collection of over five hundred Korean ceramics, it is less well known that more than twenty percent of the collection consists of early ceramics from the Three Kingdoms period. Of this, a disproportionately high number, nearly one-third, have been associated with the Gaya Confederacy. For the first time in the Academy’s history, this exhibition will bring together all of the Gaya ceramics in the museum’s collection, providing a comprehensive overview of this remarkable, yet poorly understood period, in Korea’s history. The exhibition will also include a comparison of Gaya ceramics with ceramics from other parts of Korea, and from Japan, together with selected early Chinese artworks of the type that were imported into or influenced the Gaya region. 

The staff of the Asian Art Department would like to thank Dr. Richard D. McBride, II of Brigham Young University Hawaii for his assistance in preparing this exhibition.—Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art