From the 7th century onwards the city of Gyeongju, the capital of Silla during the Three Kingdoms (57 BCE – 668 CE) and later Unified Silla (668 – 935 CE) periods, developed to become a major trade centre in the Korean Peninsula. It saw the arrival by land and sea of merchants and wares from western and eastern regions of the Silk Roads such as China, the Iranian Plateau, the Arabian Peninsula, and Japan. Thus, the city became a hub on the Silk Roads and occupied an important position within these routes of cultural exchange.
As a hub on the Silk Roads Silla was exposed to a wide number of cultures and this exchange can be evidenced in sculpture uncovered from this period that displays a hybridised use of motifs and designs from across the Silk Roads. An excellent example of an object that combines cultural elements and exemplifies intercultural exchange in Silla is a horizontal granite monolith, estimated to date from around the 8th century Unified Silla period of the Korean peninsula.
One side of this granite monolith has been polished and has three engraved circles or ‘roundels’ carved into it. The inside of these roundels feature carvings of trees, birds resembling peacocks, and lions. Although it is not known exactly what functional purpose this monolith served, the detailing on the roundels highlight how much cultural exchange, and resulting artistic synthesis, was occuring in Silla was during this time.
For example, the carved roundels on the monolith appear to have been strongly influenced by the ornamental tradition of the Sasanian period in the Iranian Plateau (224 – 651 CE), a decorative lineage that can be traced back as far as Achaemenid Persia (559 – 330 BCE) within which ‘pearl roundels’ were frequently used. Indeed roundels were a very popular design found on numerous goods traded along the Silk Roads, and in particular on textiles throughout Central Asia. The spread of the pearl roundel design was aided by the movement of Sogdian merchants along the Silk Roads across Central Asia.
One roundel on the monolith features a tree in the centre with a pair of peacocks facing each other on either side of it. The tree has been interpreted as resembling a ‘tree of life’ a widespread motif in many ancient mythologies that can also be found in the symbolism of a number of religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The tree on the Gyeongju relief appears to be an Indian mango tree, an important symbol in Buddhist iconography in the Indian Subcontinent. Although native to the Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia and Africa, peacocks were imported to the Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian Plateau where they became a highly prised animal. In Sasanian imagery, the peacock was sometimes compared or combined with the simurgh or senmurv a mythical bird-like creature often depicted with peacock tail feathers. The simurgh can be found throughout all periods of Iranian art and literature, and was one of the principal symbols of the Sasanians. The peacocks on the Gyeongju sculpture bare a resemblance to this mythical bird, specifically in the droplet shape of their tail feathers, suggesting the artist was familiar with, and possibly trying to imitate this imagery.
The second roundel carved into the relief features a tree and a lion with a lion cub. The trees drooping spade shaped leaves resemble those of the Bodhi tree, another important symbol in Buddhism used frequently in the Indian Subcontinent. Lions on the other hand were often associated, across the ancient world, with strength and royalty in both religious and secular art. Although they were not a commonly employed as a motif in East Asia until their use in Han China (206 BCE – 220 CE), by the late 6th century CE Lions as a design element had gained wider popularity throughout the regions of the Silk Roads.
The imagery on the Gyeongju relief shows the use of both Sasanian and Buddhist iconography reflecting an intercultural style that was developed along the Silk Roads. As such it testifies to the transmission of different artistic elements along the Silk Roads as well as to the multicultural milieu of Unified Silla which was slowly and gradually influenced by cultural elements coming from the other regions along these routes.
 Hongnam Kim (2017) “An Analysis of the Early Unified Silla Bas-relief of Pearl Roundel, Tree of Life, Peacocks, and Lion from the Gyeongju National Museum, Korea” The Silk Road 15 (2017): 116 – 133.