The bronze Dong Son drum is an iconic form that dates back to as early as 600 BCE. Found throughout southeast Asia, the earliest drums are attributed to the Dong Son culture of northern Vietnam and spread to nearby regions by means of trade and cultural exchange. Artifacts of ancient culture, bronze rain drums are incredible works of sculpture that captivate the imagination and hint at worlds past.
Bronze drums were first and foremost musical instruments. Often referred to as “rain drums,” the bronze drums were brought aboard boats and played during water festivals, wherein the thunderous sounds of the drums are thought to have encouraged rainfall and celebrated the rainy season. Found in agricultural societies dependent on paddy crops such as rice and taro, it’s no surprise that the drums were sacred objects thought to bring about rain - and therefore determine the fate of the village. A means of consolidating wealth, bronze drums were also symbols of an individual’s status, wealth and power, yet simultaneously belonged to the community as a whole and represented their collective spiritual connection.
Much of what is known about these ancient drums is derived from the images decorating the drums themselves. The low relief surface decoration to each drum was achieved by either the lost wax method or by casting into an earthenware mold that had been painstakingly etched by hand. The pointed star on the face is generally understood to represent the sun, around which bands of geometric motifs radiate in concentric circles like ripples in a pond. Often one or more of these bands is decorated with animals or human figures, depicted in motion facing counter-clockwise as though mirroring the Earth’s rotation around the sun.
This particular bronze drum honors the ancient form with beautiful detail. Likely created in the 18th century by Shan artists in Burma and closely associated with Karen culture of the same region, the drum diverges from earlier forms with gradual curves, a straightened base and slightly overhung top. The surface is decorated with raised bowstrings and stamped with geometric tooth-comb, lozenge, and circle-and-dot patterns. A twelve-point star decorates the center of the face and small tiered frogs hop along the sides. Four handles sit at the shoulder, cast with braided texture, and a row of tiny elephants march down the side. Marked with considerable wear and verdigris oxidation, this antique bronze drum is nevertheless a fantastic example of traditional metalwork.
Some loss to relief decoration.