Koguryo was one of the strongest kingdoms in northeast China and half of the Korean peninsula between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD. It is believed that the complex was used as a burial site for kings, queens and other members of the royal family.
The tombs are mostly built of stone and covered by stone or earthen mounds. The types of tombs are differentiated by the number of burial chambers – single chamber, two chambers, and multi-chambers with side chambers. These ancient tombs, many with beautiful wall paintings, are almost the only remains of this culture. Only about 90 out of more than 10,000 Koguryo tombs discovered in China and Korea so far have murals. Yet these paintings found on the tombs offer a unique insight into the everyday life of this period in Korean history.
Anak Tomb No. 3 is in Anak, North Korea was discovered in 1949 with valuable treasures having been stolen, though its murals were kept in good condition. It is one of the few tombs with an epitaph. The inscription indicates that this is the tomb of a certain Dong Shou, a general from Manchuria, who fled to Koguryo in 336 and was given a command in the former territory of Lelang. Although North Korean scholars claim that it is the mausoleum of King Micheon or King Gogugwon, theses theories are not considered seriously outside of the DPRK.
Most of the tombs are located in some villages and at the foot of mountains and were skillfully constructed with special ceiling designs to support the heavy weight above. The themes of the wall paintings in the tombs portrays the richness and complexity of the vanished Koguryo culture, capturing the costumes, food, residential life, burial customs and the religious practices and imagery associated with Taoism, Buddhism and the Four Deities.
Most of the known tombs suffered of clandestine excavations in the last thousand years. As a result very few were scientifically excavated prior to such activity and there are very few complete objects coming from the tombs. The tombs received worldwide attention only in
1905 when, during the Japanese occupation, many of them were opened to the general public. The first scientific research and documentation were carried out by Japanese
scholars between 1911 and the 1940s.
A new tomb was discovered in 2010 by academics from North Korea and Japan. It was found about 2.7 miles from downtown Pyongyang at a construction site.
The mural paintings in the tomb show a man in horn-shaped headgear on horseback, a procession of men holding flags on armored horses, and warriors with swords. The antechamber and main chamber at the back are connected with a narrow passage, while the bones of a man and two women have been found in the back chamber. The tomb has some unique features, including the antechamber’s arched ceilings with three layers of triangular props and the mound created by piling up alternate layers of lime, charcoal and red clay to cover the stone chambers beneath.
The scholars said the tomb’s murals are comparable to those of Tokhung-ri Tomb in Nampo, South Pyongan Province, which is included in the Complex of Koguryo Tombs inscribed in the World Heritage List in 2004.
The team also found relics offering a glimpse of how sophisticated Koguryo culture was, such as gold and silver ornaments, tiger-shaped pottery, bronze coins and nails for coffins. The celadon candlestick is the first of its kind to be excavated in North Korea.
The tomb was unearthed in an area where experts believed there would be no Koguryo mural tombs.
Here is an excellent video about the Koguryo Tombs from UNESCO, produced by Nippon Hoso Kyokai TV: