On the island of Kanghwa, west of Seoul, South Korea is a very large and interesting stone structure that from a distance, looks like a rock table. Known as a “dolmen” or “goindol” as it is called in Korean, it is a kind of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of three or more upright stones in the ground that support a large flat horizontal stone, which serves as a roof.
Dolmens are found throughout the world in Asia, Europe, and North Africa; however, Korea has the greatest number of dolmens in the world. Indeed, Korea is home to approximately 30,000 of these tombs (including about 3,000 found in North Korea) or about 50 percent of the total number of dolmens in the world.
In South Korea, the majority, or greatest density of these dolmens are located in the prehistoric cemeteries at Gochang (North Jeolla Province), Hwasun (South Jeolla Province), and Kanghwa. Although the dolmen on Kanghwa Island is the largest in Korea—known simply as Goindol—it measures 2.6 by 7.1 by 5.5 meters, Gochang has the largest concentration of them. Known as the Jungnim-ri dolmens, these dolmens are the most varied of the three sites. Built from east to west at the foot of a series of hills at an altitude of fifteen to fifty meters, the capstones of the dolmens average around one to 5.8 meters in length and weigh from ten to 300 tons.
Additionally, these sites also preserve important evidence of how the stones were quarried, transported, and erected as well as how dolmen types changed over time in northeast Asia. Without question the construction of these dolmens would require great planning, coordination, not to mention collaboration. The dolmens in Korea are classified as two types: the table/northern type (the ones found on Kanghwa Island) and the go-board/southern type (the ones found at Hwasun). In the former, builders positioned the four stones to make box-like walls and capped by a stone which lay on top of the supports. The latter is characterized by underground burial with stones that supported the capstone.
These dolmens served as burial markers for a tribe’s ruling elite and spiritual leaders and most likely pre-historic Shaman priests would have conducted ceremonies invoking the spirit of the person buried there to protect the tribe. As such these dolmens are an indispensable historical and archeological resource which provide the earliest archeological evidence of the Korean people’s religious practices.