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Knife Sheath

Glittering gilt as a signifying accessory
Sooa Im McCormick, Curator of Korean Art
December 22, 2022
Knife Sheath, 1100s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). 2022.38

As for many ancient cultures, gold was one of the main materials for luxury goods in Korea. A gold belt with pendant ornaments excavated from the north mound of the Hwangnam Daechong Tomb perhaps best represents abundant usage of gold, not only for the living but also for the dead. 

During the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), gold continued to be an extremely desirable material for luxurious commodities, but silver gilt also became popular, thanks to the sophistication of the mercury-gilding technique. This 12th-century silver knife sheath has well maintained its original glittering gilt surface. Made by rolling a flat piece of silver plate, the knife sheath is decorated on each side with oval panels, including two larger middle panels showing images of ferocious dragons with two horns and wide-open mouths. The circular upper panels bear the image of phoenixes with long, feathered tails. Both dragons and phoenixes symbolize ruling authority. 

The flat bottom of the sheath is engraved with a pair of fish, evoking the idea of harmonious unity. Two masterful metalwork techniques, chasing and repoussé, were employed to enhance the bold and dramatic tactile effects for these main motifs, while engraving was used to create small, repetitive patterns for the rest of the surface. 

An ancient korean knife sheath
Knife Sheath (장도집) 1100s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Gilt silver and brass; l. 21.7 cm. J. H. Wade Trust Fund, 2022.38

This miniature knife sheath is far from being a container for an offensive weapon. A trefoil-shaped ring attached to the tip strongly suggests that it was one of the ornamental pendants to a belt, serving more as a fashion item, which one must have had to symbolize high social and political status. In fact, a miniature knife and its ornamental sheath continued to serve as must-have accessories for elite fashionistas in succeeding centuries in Korea. 

Beth Edelstein, the CMA’s object conservator, conducted X-radiography (X-ray) and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) to better understand the material and construction of this sheath. The X-ray suggests that the sheath is made of two shorter tubes joined together end to end. The XRF reveals that the body of the sheath is made of mercury

-gilded silver, while the small trefoil-shaped ring is made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. Among about 10 well-preserved surviving examples, the knife sheath, which the CMA welcomed to our Korean art collection this past June, is likely the finest, exemplifying why the Goryeo dynasty is called the golden age of superb and sophisticated artistry.