Bar those with a fair knowledge of Korean history, few have ever heard of the kingdom of Baekje. Though long swallowed up by the sands of time, this ancient dynasty was one of East Asia's cultural high-water marks, and its influence can still be felt today: their rulers introduced Buddhism to both Korea and Japan, while Japan's own emperors have Baekje lineage. In addition, Baekje artisans produced jewellery of incredible beauty, as well as pottery of a quality unmatchable to this day.
Together with Silla and Goguryeo, Baekje was one of Korea's fabled Three Kingdoms. It came about in 18BC after some family in-fighting: the nascent kingdom of Goguryeo passed from founder to first son, ticking off the third son, Onjo, who chose to establish his own kingdom. Nothing remains of his first capital – Wiryeseong, in present-day Seoul – so to explore this forgotten piece of history we need to head further south to Gongju.
Just over an hour's bus-ride from Seoul, it’s a small, initally unassuming city that functioned as the Baekje capital from 475-538 AD. It's incredibly user-friendly – all notable sights are within easy walking distance. I choose to head straight for the royal tombs, a clutch of grassy hillocks inside which the kings of Baekje were interred. All tombs were looted over the centuries, bar that of King Muryeong (r. 501-523), which was found intact in 1971, yielding thousands of pieces of Baekje jewellery, as well as the skeletons of the king and his wife. The fruits of this astonishing discovery now fill a nearby museum, which is one of the best in the land. The highlight is, without doubt, an elaborate golden diadem once worn like rabbit ears atop the regal scalp.