Western historians became interested in the pre-history of Viet Nam around the turn of the 20th century. Their early studies theorized that ancient civilization of South East Asia, especially Viet Nam, was a product of Chinese and Indian cultures as their cultural influence expanded southward and eastward, hence the region was named Indo-China. But in the past 40 years, Vietnamese archaeologists have brought to light significant information to present a more logical and coherent view of the pre-historic Viet Nam. Based on recent excavations and surveys, Vietnamese historians have established a chronology of cultures originated in the Hong (Red) River valley from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age through the Son Vi, Hoa Binh, Bac Son, Quynh Van, Da But, Phung Nguyen, Dong Dau and Go Mun culture. The Dong Son culture culminated the Bronze Age and the opening stage of the Iron Age. This culture represented the peak of the ancient civilization of Viet Nam and the beginning formation of Van Lang/Au Lac, the first unified nation under the Hu`ng kingdom.

Drum Hoang Ha: The Bronze Dong Son Drums


References: Viet Nam Institute of Archeology




























Hoa Binh Culture:
By 12,000 BC, the pre-historic people of Viet Nam had abandoned its nomadic life to settle in the Hong (Red) river valley. They lived in caves and rock shelters close to water streams and knew how to make rudimentary stoned tools made in oval, circular or triangle shape with sharp edge. The Hoabinians were mostly hunters but they also cultivated plants to gather fruits and edible roots. This fact suggests domestic cultivation may exist in South East Asia earlier than in the Near East (Iraq) as many Western historians have believed .


Bac Son Culture:
The Bac Son tools were significantly improved from the Hoa Binh's as they were made with ground and polished stone. Hand tools such as choppers and axes were used extensively in hunting and plant cultivation. One important milestone of the Bac Son culture was the introduction of pottery, even though it was still very crude. The Bac Son society was quite developed: Its people lived in tribes headed by a female leader, usually an elder or experienced woman. Some painting and marking found on the wall of their shelters suggested the Bacsonians had an elementary number system they used for counting and record keeping.

Quynh Van Culture:
About the same time of the Bac Son culture, there existed another culture found along the coastal area of North-Central Viet Nam (Nghe Tinh province). The Quynh Van people subsisted mainly on maritime food. Archaeologists have found remains of large fish bone suggesting seaborn fishing had already developed at this time.

Phung Nguyen Culture:
Stone hand tools and weapons improved remarkably in both quantity and variety. Pottery reached a higher level in technique and decoration style. Many forms of craft also existed such as fabric weaving, thread yarning, and rope making. The Phung Nguyen people were mainly agriculturists, they grew the wet rice Oryza, now became their main staple diet. They grouped in communities settled along the large rivers in Northern Viet Nam such as Hong, Da and Lo The first appearance of bronze tools occurred in the later stage of the Phung Nguyen period although these tools were still rare.

Dong Dau and Go Mun Cultures:
Bronze replaced stone for about 40 percent of edged tools and weapons, rising to about 60 percent in the Go Mun culture. Here, there are not only bronze weapons, axes, and personal ornaments, but also sickles and other agriculture tools. Toward the closure of the Bronze Age, bronze accounts for more than 90 percent of tools and weapons, and there are exceptional rich graves-the burial places of powerful chiefdoms-contained some hundred of ritual and personal bronze artifacts such as musical instruments, bucket-shaped ladles and ornament daggers.


Dong Son Culture:
Vietnamese historians have characterized Dong Son as the formation period of the Vietnamese nation . This period is closely identifiable with Van Lang, the first kingdom of Viet Nam, and the 18 Kings Hung, its founders. The nation was ruled with a royal dynasty and a professional administrative class from the capital of Co Loa. The Dong Son culture exerted great influence on its neighbor regions. Historians have established important links from the Dong Son culture with Tibeto-Burman culture, with Thai culture in Yun-nam and Laos, and especially with the Mon-Khmer cultures, particularly the Tran-ninh's Plain of Jars plateau.

The archaeological material from the Dong Son period is very rich, The Dong Son people were skilled agriculturalists, they grew rice and kept buffaloes and pigs. They lived in large huts close to the sea or river, which were built on stilts to keep them clear at high water and had overhanging saddle roofs. They were also skilled fishermen and bold sailors, whose long dug-out canoes traversed all the China sea. This explains both the wealth of their culture and the expansion of their territory.

Minh Bui
Lich Su Viet Nam, Phan Huy Le
The Birth of Viet Nam, Keith Taylor, 1988
The Bronze Drums of Dong Son, Nguyen van Huyen et al.., 1989
Old Civilizations of the World


Many bronze drums of the Dong Son period have been reported in South and Southwest China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. In Viet Nam, approximately 140 drums were discovered in many locations throughout Viet Nam from the high land region of the north to the plains of the south and as far as to the Phu Quoc island.
Scholars have traditionally traced its bronze-casting technology to northern China. This theory was based on the assumption that bronze casting in eastern Asia originated in northern China; however, this idea has been discredited by archaeological discoveries in north-eastern Thailand in the 1970's. In the words of one scholar, "bronze casting began in Southeast Asia and was later borrowed by the Chinese, not vice versa as the Chinese scholars have always claimed". Such interpretation is supported by the work of modern Vietnamese archaeologists. They have found that the earliest bronze drums of Dong Son are closely related in basic structural features and in decorative design to the pottery of the Phung Nguyen culture.

It is still uncertain whether the bronze drums were made for religious ceremonies, to rally men for war, or for another secular role. Most of the bronze drums were made in Viet Nam and South China but they were traded to the south and west such as Java and Bali islands, and were valued by people with very different cultures. The Dong Son bronze drums exhibit the advanced techniques and the great skill in the lost-wax casting of large objects, the Co Loa drum would have required the smelting of between 1 and 7 tons of copper ore and the use of up to 10 large castings crucibles at one time.

Most scholars agree the Dong Son drums display an artistic level reaching perfection that few cultures of the time could rival. The Dong Son drums, especially the early ones, were decorated with very rich and well composed images of objects, humans and animals. These images together provided a lively description of the Dong Son society, its people, their daily chores as well as their spiritual life and ceremonial activities.

The decorative images on the tympanum follow a common pattern: at the center is a star encircled by concentric panels of human or animal scenes interspersed with bands of geometric motifs. Birds, deers, buffaloes and hornbills were depicted. Historians have identified the connection between Van Lang and the word vlang (or blang), a large bird in the Austro-Asiatic Viet language. Furthermore, the Hung kings also chose a heron, an aquatic bird, as the totem of Van Lang.

The Dong Son society was an agricultural one based on the wet rice cultivation. The images on of the Dong Son drums vividly described the activities associated with rice production such as people carrying plows, buffaloes and oxen working the fields and farmers milling rice with hand pestles.

Water rituals were well depicted on the face and body of the drums. Scenes of boat race are believed to represent village festivals to celebrate the supreme role of water in agriculture. Images of Dong Son warriors and their weapons are found carved on many drums. Many types of weapon were represented: cross-bow, javelin, hatchet, spear, dagger and body shield. These images confirm the historical setting of the Dong Son time as its people was in constant fighting for survival against the people from the North.

Social events were well depicted on the drums through images of dancers, musicians and musical instruments. There were bronze drums, bells, castanets, the senhs (rattlers made of bamboo cylinders taped to the arm or leg to make sound when dancing) and the khens (instruments with 4 to 6 long pipes attached to a resonance box). On the Ngoc Lu and Hoang Ha drums, images of Dong Son people sit in line on the floor beating the bronze drums with drumsticks. Dancers in ceremonial garments processing in a counter clockwise direction, each dancer holding an instrument or a weapon with one hand while the other hand forms some sort of rhythmic gesture.

Minh Bui
Lich Su Viet Nam, Phan Huy Le
The Birth of Viet Nam, Keith Taylor, 1988
The Bronze Drums of Dong Son, Nguyen van Huyen et al.. , 1989


In 1902, Franz Heger, an Austrian ethnographer, published a study in which he classified the South East Asian bronze drums into four main types known as Heger types I to IV. The Heger classification, which categorized the bronze drums by their shape, dimension, weight, decorative design, chemical composition and casting techniques, has been the key in many past studies. But since 1975, the number of bronze drums discovered in Viet Nam has doubled providing significant new material and theories on the Dong Son culture. Based on these findings, Vietnamese archaeologists have proposed a new classification adapted from Heger's foundation work.


The Classification of the Dong Son Bronze Drums
Date Grp Examples Size & Shape Design Discovery
A Ngoc Lu
Hoang Ha
Co Loa
Song Da
Mieu Mon
Face: 60-70cm dia.
Height: 40-50cm;
large & proportional; shouder and body of equal dimensions
vivid, rich & composed mostly in Viet Nam; drums with sloping body were usually found in the highland while those having vertical straight body were mostly found in the plain
B Duy Tien
Yen Tap
Phu Duy
Dong Son
Face: 56-65cm dia.
Height: 47-53cm;
slender & tall body
simpler and marked different geometric motifs from Group A mostly in Viet Nam
C Hieu Chung
Dong Hieu
Thanh Van
Face: 34-116cm dia.
Height: 24-92cm
sophisticated & stylized as Group A; 4 frog sculptures near the rim of the face mostly in Viet Nam
D Dao Xa
Tung Lam
Face: 26-52cm dia.
Height: 24-38cm
heavy body; broad shoulder, steep slope & shorter base
few, simple & crude; Flaws resulted from poor casting techniques few in Viet Nam & mostly in Southern China
E Cao Bang Face: 35-88cm dia.
Height: 21-62cm
undefined & dispropotional shoulder, body & base
simple & meager; influenced from other cultural forms; some only 1/3 of face mostly in Southern China

Minh Bui
Lich Su Viet Nam, Phan Huy Le
The Bronze Drums of Dong Son, Nguyen van Huyen et al.., 1989


The casting of the bronze drums of Dong Son is a complex process requiring high order of techniques and artistic skills.

It was first necessary to produce a hollow clay core to minimise weight and ease its manipulation.
Separate clay pattern moulds would then be prepared, circular for the tympanum and rectangular for sections of the mantle.
The surface of the clay received ornamentation in more than one way. It could be impressed with a patterned old to create the panels of geometric ornament, or for more individual motifs or decorative elements, it could be incised with a stylus.
This pattern old would then have been filled with molten wax, such that the wax filled and duplicated the chosen decor.
It would then have been necessary to transfer the sheets of cooled wax to the clay core, having first place the bronze spacers strategically into the wax until they reach the surface of the pattern old.
This procedure resulted, in effect, a wax drum over a clay core.
Investment of the wax in a layer of very fine clay followed before the assemblage was covered in a coarse clay coat. It was then necessary to melt out the wax, and preheat the clay old. The critical point was then reached for the pour, in the case of larger examples, of nearly 100 kg of molten bronze into the conduits to reproduce in metal the wax image of the drum.

References: The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia, Charles Higham, 1996