Compared to the ancient and medieval history and archaeology of China and Japan, those of Korea have been substantially understudied overseas, with only a small number of scholars interested in the field.
But the number has dwindled even more over the past years due to a lack of job opportunities and funding, according to Jack Davey, a US-based scholar of early Korean history and archaeology.
A 2019 symposium on the archaeology of Korea, for instance, brought together just 12 scholars -- and seven of those have left the field for jobs elsewhere.
“The field is in very real danger of dying out,” Davey said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
The unfortunate termination in 2018 of the “Early Korea Project” at Harvard University was very damaging, he continued.
“A large number of very promising scholars have left the field because they could not secure jobs or they did not want their own research to generate similar controversy,” he said, referring to how “unfounded attacks” from a few nationalistic historians in Seoul ultimately derailed the multiyear research grant program that focused on the Korean Peninsula before the 10th century.
Since 2018, almost no scholars have been studying early Korea in the US, with virtually no new book-length publications related to early Korea in English and no museum exhibitions or university classes related to ancient Korean history, he said.
Davey researches and writes about the early states on the Korean Peninsula and their complex cultural interactions within East Asia. He is currently working on a project to understand the Mahan culture, which thrived from around the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. in what is now the North and South Chungcheong and Jeolla Provinces in South Korea, through its tombs and items buried with bodies.
Having studied archaeology in university, Davey originally had no plans to focus on Korea. But when he graduated, he traveled to Korea and worked as a high school English teacher in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, for two years.
It was during this time that he met archaeologists and historians working at Gyeongju University and was invited to participate in an archaeological dig at the nearby temple Bulguksa.
“Through this fortunate experience, I completely fell in love with Korean history so I enrolled as a Ph.D. student to study Korean archaeology,” he said.
“The thing I find most fascinating about Mahan is how diverse it was and how many connections it had with other groups in China, Manchuria and Japan. There are so many different kinds of tombs, and different regions have completely unique practices.”
His current project on Mahan is part of a larger book he is writing on the mortuary culture of Iron Age Korea called “The Southern Korean Iron Age.”
Davey refers to primary sources and historical records like Samguk Sagi (1145, also known as "Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla") and Chinese sources like Sanguozhi (late third century, "Records of the Three Kingdoms") and Hou Hanshu (445, "Book of the Later Han"). But since many of the Mahan groups, called statelets, are barely discussed in historical texts, archaeology is needed to understand their development.
“By far the most important sources I use are archaeological site reports produced by Korean universities and research institutes. The sophistication of Korean field archaeology and the publication of site reports makes my work possible,” he said.
The two biggest challenges for now are funding and building community.
“Currently, there is very little funding to conduct research, hold academic seminars, or for universities to offer professorships in ancient Korean history or archaeology,” he said.
“The second-biggest challenge is building community. With so few scholars in the field outside of Korea, it is almost impossible to bring people together to hold academic events or strengthen the field.”
He and others hope to build an organization similar to the Early Korea Project to support and publish research, create a strong community and mentor the next generation of scholars of early Korea.
“To do this, we need the Korean academic community to recognize the importance of overseas early Korea research and advocate on our behalf,” he said.