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Drumming Dong Son style

April 8, 2006

Of ancient relics that have survived into the present, few are more magnificent than the Dong Son drums of what is now Vietnam.

Southeast Asia may have one of the world earliest bronze ages, but it's a matter of archaeological controversy. Researchers dated some very early bronze artifacts from sites like Ban Chiang and Non Nok Tha in Thailand going back possibly to 3600 BCE or earlier.

Probably the bronze making technology of the Dong Song culture in Vietnam's Red River Valley owes its origin to the early Thai sites. French collector L. Pajot first discovered artifacts from this culture in 1929.

Early examples of bronze drums turn up both in Vietnam and Yunnan in South China many centuries before the start of our era and possibly as early as 1000 BCE. The practice of bronze drum making eventually spread through much of Southeast Asia including Java and Bali below the equator.

Most observers recognize the Dong Son drums as the finest examples of early bronze drums and even of ancient bronze technology as a whole.

Dong Son culture is usually identified with Vietnam's first dynasty, the Van Lang. The people grew rice using water buffalo to tend their fields.

Drum-makers used the "lost wax" method to cast in bronze. Because of the complexity of the drums, different parts had to be cast separately in a multi-phase operation.

For the more sophisticated pieces, wax layers were poured into clay moulds with impressed decorations then lifted and placed over a hollow clay core model of the drum. Wax was also poured into a decorated clay mould for the tympanum. The two halves of the drum are placed on top of the tympanum mould and an outer clay layer was formed over the wax.

Molten bronze is poured into the conduit containing the wax, melting and displacing it to form the drum shape.

Bronze drums still play a role in Southeast Asian societies especially among indigenous cultures. Some drums are even the object of a type of animistic worship as in the case of the "Moon of Pejeng" drum of Bali. The drums are used to call the ancestors, for rain-making and similar shamanistic rituals.

Dong Son drums are shining examples of ancient bronze art that survive today in museums throughout the world.

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