UNESCO World Heritage Series: Part 1 - Dolmens

By Matthew Fennell

January 2017 - For many hardened travellers, UNESCO World Heritage Sites provide the ultimate bucket list for experiencing the Earth’s cultural and natural heritage. While it would take many years of travel to see all 1052 designated sights around the world, a short trip to Korea would at least enable you to tick off twelve. South Korea is home to eleven cultural sites and one natural site; over the course of the next few months, Asia Society Korea will be previewing selected World Heritage Sites through a historical, cultural and travel perspective. We kick off our program in the south-western part of peninsular by visiting Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites.

You are probably reading this and thinking, what is a dolmen? It is the same question many people have when they hear about this World Heritage Site and that fact the Korean peninsula is home to 40% of the world’s dolmens! Dolmen are thought to be burial sites that were built out of stone during the prehistoric era, usually in the shape of a table. These stone landmarks resemble the architectural style of Stonehenge and are mostly found in Northeast Asia; they are particularly abundant in Korea where the total number of known dolmen is estimated to be around 30,000. In dolmen areas, many artefacts, including human bones, stone objects, jade, and bronze have also been discovered.

So, why are these table shaped, stone graves so culturally significant? Well, dolmen are of significant archaeological value for the information that they provide about the prehistoric civilizations that built them. These stone tombs date back to the 1st millennium BC, forming an important element of Megalithic culture; the structures give an insight into the beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, and social and political systems of the time. How the stones were quarried, transported, and constructed also tell us a lot about humans during this period. Similarly to the pyramids in Egypt, one can only wonder about how such large stones were moved, where they come from, and what kind of skills were used to build the dolmens?

Although the largest concentration of dolmen can be found in the south-western locations of Gochang and Hwasun, a third significant range of stones is situated on the island of Ganghwa, not far from Incheon Airport. For somebody wanting to visit South Korea’s dolmens, planning is important as the sites are not geographically close to each other and are not best served by public transportation. On the plus side, the dolmen are located in rural areas of the country so you are generally left alone to explore these areas of significant cultural value. Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen may well be the least populated UNESCO sites you visit.

*Matthew Fennell is Asia Society Korea Center's Contributing Writer and Assistant Professor at Hanyang University in Seoul.