Korea only became a peninsula in the last ice age, which ended 15,000 years ago. Though connected by land to China, it is only 130 miles away from Japan, which means it exported and imported both ideas and items with its neighbors.

As with all cultures, ceramics represent some of the earliest artifacts found in Korea, with “comb-pattern” pottery dating as far back as 7000 B.C. During Korea’s Bronze Age, which occurred around 3,000 years ago, immigrants from Manchuria (encompassing parts of present-day Siberia and China) may have been the ones to introduce metallurgy to indigenous Koreans—comma-shaped nephrite beads called kogok also originated during this period. By around 300 B.C., iron found its way to the peninsula, again most likely introduced by the Chinese, who by then had been perfecting the technology for several hundred years. Pottery also underwent a change during the iron age, as coil- and slab-built pieces were replaced by ceramics thrown on a wheel.

Unlike China and Japan, whose history is packed with numerous distinct dynasties and periods, Korea has only four main historical eras—the Three Kingdoms period from 57 B.C. to 668, the Unified Silla dynasty from 668 to 935, the Koryo (also spelled Goryeo) dynasty from 918 to 1392, and the Choson (also spelled Joseon) dynasty from 1392 until 1910.

Some of the earliest Korean paintings date from the Three Kingdoms period, when murals were used to decorate the interiors of tombs. These paintings depict life at that time, as well as portraits of tomb occupants, but they are also some of the first examples of landscape painting on the peninsula. Those tombs that were not ransacked contained weapons made out of bronze, iron, and gold, presumably for use in the afterlife. In some cases, the techniques and adornments on these pieces reveal influences from the Eurasian steppes, which stretched from Eastern Europe to Manchuria and were used by traders traveling the Silk Road.

Korean stoneware also got its start during the Three Kingdoms period, which means ceramics technologies had improved enough to permit high-fire kilns. And, of course, there is no shortage of religious sculpture, including statues of the Buddha and scores of enlightened bodhisattvas. The production of stoneware continued through the Unified Silla dynasty, but ceramics got more interesting during the Koryo dynasty, when the famous celadon glazes were introduced and perfected. By the 12th century, Korean celadon-glazed ceramics was much desired in China, but as the dynasty began to falter in the 13th century, the quality of Korean celadon pieces suffered.

During the Choson dynasty, a blue-gray stoneware with a blue-green glaze called punch’ong superseded celadon ware until the 16th century, when Korean ceramists were forcibly moved to Japan, where the ware was highly prized. That opened the door for a white porcelain called paekcha to flourish on the peninsula. Glaze colors ranged from copper-red to cobalt-blue, but Korean potters shied away from the garish overglazing techniques of the Chinese, whether for reasons of religious rigor or pure economy.


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