Đông Sơn Drums


Hoàng Hạ bronze drum, Hòa Bình province, 61.5 x 79 cm (National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi)

Hoàng Hạ bronze drum, Hòa Bình province, 61.5 x 79 cm (National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi; photo: Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Đông Sơn drum is a magical musical instrument that produces lyrical sounds and an historical object that advances our understanding of the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia. This is because the Đông Sơn drums (500 B.C.E.–100 C.E.) have been found throughout Southeast Asia, including Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia, suggesting far ranging early trade networks and interactions.

Map showing Dong Son and the distribution of Dong Son-type drums

Map showing Dong Son and the distribution of Đông Sơn-type drums

Đông Sơn Culture  

The name “Đông Sơn” has become synonymous with the Bronze Age culture that manufactured sophisticated metal drums; however, this was not how people of this culture referred to themselves. We don’t know what they called themselves because no written records by the community of Đông Sơn have been found. The name Đông Sơn refers to a modern village and archaeological site in Vietnam that was first excavated in 1924. Today, over 500 excavation sites are linked to the Đông Sơn culture whose influence was mainly centered near the Red River Valley of northern Vietnam, but also appeared as far west as modern Laos. 

Based on extant archaeological finds, the people of Đông Sơn tradition were skilled at bronze casting and their material culture included metal tools, jewelry, weapons, and drums along with non-metal materials such as ceramic vessels and glass beads. This essay will focus on the metal drums that have made this culture so well known. Today scholars often rely on old photographs and line drawings to visualize the intricate designs on the drums as it is almost impossible to photograph these magical Đông Sơn drums in museums. 

Drum from Sông Đà, Vietnam. Đông Sơn II culture. Mid-1st millennium BCE. Bronze.

Drum from Sông Đà, Vietnam, mid-1st millennium B.C.E., bronze, 61 x 78 cm (Musée Guimet)

Construction of drums 

The origins of metallurgy in Southeast Asia are highly debated. However, evidence suggests that knowledgeable metalworkers in India and in the regions of the Yellow and Yangtze valleys in China and Central Asia introduced the techniques to Southeast Asia during the second millennium B.C.E. (2000–1001 B.C.E.). 

Although Đông Sơn drums are not the oldest examples of bronze objects from the region, they are among some of the most sophisticated. The drums were created using either the piece-mold or the lost-wax technique. [1] With the piece-mold technique, the caster created a clay model with decorated patterns pressed onto the surface. Multiple molds were constructed from the top and sides of a model. With the molds assembled around the casting core, molten bronze was then poured between the core and outer molds. Once the bronze cooled and hardened, the molds and casting core were broken and the bronze was extracted. [2]

Another method used was the lost-wax technique. In this case a core model was created in clay. The clay model was decorated with a stylus and wax was pressed against the clay surfaces to create the desired form. Molten bronze was poured into the recess that contained the wax, which burned off. Once the bronze had cooled, the clay was broken to reveal the bronze in the shape of the lost wax. [3]

Miniature Drum with Four Frogs, c. 500 B.C.–A.D. 300, bronze, Vietnam, 10.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Miniature Drum with Four Frogs, c. 500 B.C.–A.D. 300, bronze, Vietnam, 10.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Drums as self-referencing historical documents

The Đông Sơn drums vary in size from miniature to life-size, roughly 2 inches to 6 feet tall in height, and represent the best examples of complex metalworking from this culture. They have a symmetrical body which consists of three parts: the barrel (upper portion), the body (middle portion), and the foot (lower portion). Depending on its size, the drum can weigh up to 220 pounds. 

The drums have been found primarily in elite private homes at archaeological sites and in burials (mostly discovered by looters and farmers), which suggests that they played a significant role in Bronze Age ritual contexts in Southeast Asia. Đông Sơn drums were also discovered in elite burials in Vietnam, Sumatra, and Timor-Leste. 

Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam

Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam (Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi)

While the drums varied in size, many extant examples are characterized by the geometric and figural images found on their tympanums. The most celebrated and well preserved is the Ngọc Lũ drum, now at the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi. The Ngọc Lũ drum depicts a sunburst symbol at the center of its tympanum. The “sun” has fourteen radiating beams that are interspersed by motifs of peacock feathers. Scholars have argued that the consistent appearance of a sun or star shape on the drums indicates that the Đông Sơn community were worshippers of the natural world. Some have even gone as far to argue that the drums depict rituals worshiping the sun, with participants circumambulating and worshiping the sun. [4] This can be seen on the Ngọc Lũ drum specifically, but also on the other drums more generally.

Annotated drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam

Annotated drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam (Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi)

Annotated drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam

Detail of figures on a scaffold beating drums, drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum

All the images on the tympanum on the drums are rendered in circular registers that radiate around the central sun motif. They include a combination of registers depicting geometric designs as well as complex iconography with representations of figures, animals, and architecture.

On the Ngọc Lũ drum, the first five registers are decorated with geometric designs, while the sixth register includes scenes of figures in daily and ritual life. For example, there are three seated figures and one standing figure on a scaffold, beating four drums below them with long sticks. [5] Not only does this imagery allow modern students to understand how the drums were played, but they also serve as historical documents that preserve the ritual traditions of Đông Sơn culture. The Ngọc Lũ drum, and others like it, are thus self-referencing. 

Annotated drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam

Detail of two figures with a vessel and stick (left), and a boat house (right) with a large animal on a scaffold, drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum. The drum is turned on its side and the weaver is located at the two corners (right and left) of the scaffold.

Other important representations found on the Ngọc Lũ drum include an image of a boat-shaped house. Boats are important symbols among the various cultures of Southeast Asia who believe that they transport the soul of the dead from the earthly to the spiritual realm. This imagery is important as it allows a glimpse into the lived experience of the people of the Đông Sơn culture and their beliefs. Based on this image, homes were elevated, as indicated by stilts that appear at the four corners and the seated figure both above and below the platform of the home. Above the home, a large animal walks on the roof of the structure. Inside the home are two seated weavers. Underneath, is another weaver with a loom who sits opposite a drum turned on its side. The rendering of the drum in this way may indicate that it could also be played in this fashion. 

Also depicted on the sixth register is the scene of two standing figures, which archaeologist and scholar of Bronze Age Southeast Asia, Charles Higham, has argued depicts a male and female braying (pounding) rice or grain in a vessel with long ceremonial sticks. This may suggest that the drum was used for rituals concerning agricultural harvest. Moreover, the action of braying rice is similar to how the drums were played by beating on the surface. While there is no written history that helps us to understand the usage and iconography of the drums during their time of manufacture, contemporary societies may give some glimpse into their function. Today the Hmong communities who predominantly live in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand store rice in drums. Some families regard the drums as living objects and they give grains of rice to the drum, which were pounded on their surface as food. [6]

Annotated drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E., bronze, discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam

Detail of figures with headdresses, drawing of the surface of the Ngọc Lũ drum

In another section of the sixth register, figures wearing feathered headdresses are depicted playing various musical instruments as well as holding weapons such as spears and daggers. The appearance of the figures in ceremonial dress, taking part in some sort of ritualized activity, may also suggest that drums were used in warfare. Their thunderous sound may have marked the beginning of war, or worked to instill fear, among other possibilities. Archaeologist A. J. Bernet Kempers has argued that the dotted patterns that appear in between the registers indicate sound evoked from the playing of the drum. [7]

In addition to this imagery, the Ngọc Lũ drum also includes rendering of animals such as deer, hornbills, and cranes, which can be found on the outer registers. 

Legacy of Đông Sơn drums, funerary rituals and ancestor worship  

Dong Son Culture to Tran Dynasty Gallery, National History Museum of Vietnam, Hanoi (photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

Đông Sơn boat coffin, possible 3rd–2nd century B.C.E. (National History Museum of Vietnam, Hanoi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

While the Ngọc Lũ drum and other Đông Sơn drums can be understood as important historical documents, without written evidence of their makers’ and users’ intent and function, we must look to other possible sources. Scholars have posited that there is a link between how the drums are used now and how they were used in the past. 

In 1960, farmers discovered more than ninety wooden boat-shaped coffins and six bronze drums created for the burial at Ongbah Cave, in Kanchanburi province in Thailand. [8] The date of the burials are unknown as the objects were moved from their original find spots, but some scholars suggest the 3rd–2nd century B.C.E. Archaeologist Per Sorensen has argued that the boat-shaped coffins, which were buried along with drums, indicate that the drums are used to mediate between the living and the dead. Because of the animation of the Đông Sơn drum through the act of drumming, this object could facilitate the successful transportation of the ancestor’s soul. [9] There is also evidence that some of the drums in Ongbah Cave were destroyed before their burial. This act, we think, was intended to protect the drums from looters, but also ensured that they could not “fly” away, securing their permanent place in the spiritual realm. [10] The ancient burials in Thailand and Vietnam are sites of memory that allow living communities to commemorate the dead. Local communities have continued using the drums in modern burial rituals.

The Đông Sơn drum developed an important status in Southeast Asia and they can be considered one of the first animated objects of the Bronze Age. The Ngọc Lũ drum had dynamic representations such as repeated patterns, figures, and complex architecture. The Ongbah Cave burials at Kanchanaburi province in Thailand reveal that residents today still associate the drums with the dead and ritual practices. The Đông Sơn drums were produced as permanent, living objects through their self-representation, and served as important historical documents. Once the drum was created, the object’s form and motifs reinforced a common imagery that was easily circulated and adopted for use in local communities. The drums served as a catalyst for the development and remembrance of shared funerary practices. The collective memory and the image of the drum contributed to the spread of a pan-regional visual culture, suggesting early trade networks, shared technology, and ritual beliefs across Southeast Asia.

Notes:

[1] Donna Strahan, “Piece-Mold Casting: A Chinese Tradition for Fourth- and Fifth-Century Bronze Images,” Metropolitan Museum Studies in Art, Science, and Technology vol. 1 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010), pp. 133–53.

[2] Pieter Meyers, “Casting Technology in Cambodia and Related Southeast Asian Civilizations, Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past, eds. Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford (Chicago:  Art Media Resources, 2011), pp. 30–31.

[3] Ibid., p. 36.

[4]  Ambra Calò, The Distribution of Bronze Drums in Early Southeast Asia: trade routes and cultural sphere, BAR International Series 1913 (2009), pp. 7–8.

[5] Charles Higham, The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 126.

[6] A.J. Bernet Kempers, “The Kettledrums of Southeast Asia: a Bronze Age world and its Aftermath,” Modern Quaternary Research in Southeast Asia, Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema Publishers 10 (1988), p. 71.

[7] Ibid, p. 65.

[8] Per Sorensen, “Prehistoric Iron Implements from Thailand,” Asian Perspectives, 16, no. 2 (1973): pp. 134–173.

[9] Charles Higham, The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): p. 290.

[10] Kempers, “The Kettledrums of Southeast Asia,” p. 73.

 

Additional resources

The thematic exhibition on Dong Son Culture.

Calò, Ambra. The Distribution of Bronze Drums in Early Southeast Asia: trade routes and cultural sphere. BAR International Series 1913, 2009. 

Calò, Ambra.  Trails of Bronze Drums in Early Southeast Asia: Exchange Routes and Connected Cultural Spheres. Singapore: ISEAS, 2014.

Higham, Charles. The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kempers Bernet, A.J. The Kettledrums of Southeast Asia: A Bronze Age World and its Aftermath. 1988. 

Kim, Nam. “The Dong Son Culture of Vietnam.” Ed.  C.F.W. Higham and Nam C. Kim. The Oxford Handbook of Early Southeast Asia. Oxford University Press, 2022, pp. 543–54.

Meyers, Pieter. “Casting Technology in Cambodia and Related Southeast Asian Civilizations.” Khmer Bronzes:  New Interpretations of the Past, Eds. Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford, Chicago: Art Media Resources, 2011.

Sorensen, Per. “The Kettledrums from the Ongbah Cave, Kanchanaburi Province.” Archaeological Excavations in Thailand, Great Britain: Blackmore Press, 1988. 

Sorensen, Per. “Prehistoric Iron Implements from Thailand.” Asian Perspectives, 16 (2), 1973, pp. 134–173.

Strahan, Donna. “Piece-Mold Casting: A Chinese Tradition for Fourth- and Fifth-Century Bronze Images.” Metropolitan Museum Studies in Art, Science, and Technology vol. 1.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, pp. 133–153. 

Cite this page as: Dr. Mya Chau, "Đông Sơn Drums," in Smarthistory, October 3, 2022, accessed December 1, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/dong-son-drums/.