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 beautifully exemplifies this ancient form. The petite scale of the drum suggests it may have been used as a burial figurine or played alongside larger drums as part of an orchestra. At the center of the face is an eight-point star surrounded by concentric bands of sawtooth and circle-and-dot patterns. The low drum has a balanced silhouette, with rounded shoulders that curve into a straight body and flared base. The shoulder is decorated with geometric banding and fret images depicting long boats carrying oxen and figures dressed in feathered attire. Between vertical banding on the body are additional fret images of large buffalo or oxen patterned with hash marks. These simple images reveal the importance of livestock to the Dong Son people in addition to their agricultural lifestyle. Dated to the late Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the drum shows considerable wear and oxidation but nevertheless displays the incredible skill and artistry behind Dong Son bronze work.