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Bảo tàng lịch sử Quốc gia

Vietnam National Museum of History

05/12/2014 15:45 3843
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Dong Son culture (dated from the seventh century BC to the first - second century AD) was a Metal Ages archaeological culture in ancient Vietnam. It was named by archaeologists for the Dong Son village on the banks of Ma River, Thanh Hoa City where a number of bronze items were accidentally discovered in 1924.

The remains of Dong Son culture are very numerous, diverse and unique, with a high quality and aesthetic. They are made of various materials, including iron, ceramic, stone, glass and wood - but almost in bronze. According to the purposes of usage, they are classified into different collections such as production tools, domestic wares, weapons, musical instruments, jewellery, works of art and miniatures. Together, those collections establish the characteristics of the great development of the Dong Son civilization.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the discovery and research on Dong Son culture, the Vietnam National Museum of History has collaborated with local museums including the Hanoi Museum, the Hung Yen Museum, the Lao Cai Museum, the Nghe An Museum, the Yen Bai Museum and the Thanh Hoa Museum to organize a special exhibition called "Dong Son culture". This exhibition aims to present audiences with Dong Son’s greatest collections and the valuable history, culture and beauty hidden in those collections. In particular, some objects recognized as Vietnam’s National Treasures will be showcased at this occasion.

Viet Khe bronze urn, detected inside Viet Khe boat casket (Hai Phong), object of the VNMH Museum

Viet Khe bronze ladle, detected inside Viet Khe boat-shaped casket (Hai Phong), object of the VNMH Museum

Foot-shaped axe with decoration of hunting scene, discovered in Ha Dong (Ha Noi), object of the VNMH Museum

Chest plate with decoration of crocodile, found in Ninh Binh, object of the VNMH Museum

Since it was discovered, many issues about Dong Son culture have been identified. However, in a margin of a thematic exhibition, and due to the special language of museums as the original objects so we can only try to introduce the most prominent collections of Dong Son culture. Through 8 groups of objects, visitors can find information and understand generally about the society, material and spiritual life of Dong Son people.

Domestic wares

Dong Xa bronze drum, discovered at Dong Xa, Kim Dong, Hung Yen province, object of Hung Yen Museum

A collection of Dong Son free-standing statues

The Co Loa bronze drum's tympanum, discovered at Co Loa Citadel, Hanoi, object of Ha Noi Museum

1. Bronze drums collection

Đông Sơn drums (also called Heger Type 1 drums according to F. Heger's classification) are bronze drums fabricated by the Đông Sơn culture and one of the finest examples of Vietnamese ancient bronze casting technique. They were perhaps used as one kind of important musical instrument initially, but step by step, they became the symbol of power of Dong Son tribe leaders and representing for the survival of the Lac Viet community.

The drums were fabricated by lost-wax casting technique of large objects, using moulds prepared for 3 different parts including 1 mould for the tympanum and 2 for the body part. The tympanum is normally smaller than the barrel (upper part). The drum's body includes 3 distinct parts: the barrel (upper part), the body (middle part) and the foot (lower part). The middle part is upright or sloping. The decorations on the tympanum, the barrel and the body are sun patterns between the rays, scenes of daily life and geometric motifs. The pattern lines are slim but sharp and full filling. Based on the appearances and decorations, Dong Son drums are classified into 4 groups as followings:

Group A: Comprising a set of finest and intricately decorated drums. The decorative patterns are very sophisticated and composed. Apart from geometric motifs, there are rims and bands of scenes of daily life chores.

Group B: The drums are divided into 3 parts but disproportional dimensions. The decorative designs are simpler, mainly geometric motifs. There is only one decorative feature; that is a band of flying birds on the drum's surface.

Group C: The drums are divided into 3 proportional parts. The designs of decoration are as vivid and composed as that of Group A but at a higher lever of stylization, in a trend of shape metamorphosis.

Group D: The drum's body looks undefined and disproportional. The drum's surface and body is decorated by simple patterns; the drum's barrel is plain.

The exhibition displayed 11 units of Dong Son bronze drums. They are representatives for the above mentioned 4 groups. Of which many are well known ones such as Hoang Ha drum (Hanoi, Vietnam's National Treasure), Co Loa drum (Hanoi), Lang Vac drum (Nghe An), Thanh Vinh drum (Thanh Hoa), Dong Xa drum (Hung Yen), Tung Lam drum (Hanoi) and Lao Cai drum (Lao Cai)...

2. Production tools

The Dongsonians fabricated many kinds of advanced and high efficient tools. The popular were tools used for agricultural purposes, including many types of axes and daggers for cutting trees and site clearance; moorhens, shovels, spades and ploughshares for soil cultivation, or sickles and tweezers for cutting crops. The evidences of the bronze casting were found through many items such as the casting moulds, crucibles and weights for material measurement. The Dongsonians also invented carpentry tools including the hollow and flat chisels in the styles of short or long, slender or squat that appropriated for different carving techniques, or small and disproportioned axes for shaving and amending the wood. Besides, the spindle-whorls in textiles, hooks and casting nets in fishing were also discovered...

The exhibits:

+ Agricultural production tools:

- Cutting tools, clearance tools: foot-shaped axes, boat-shaped axes, fish's tail-shaped axes...

- Soil cultivation: moorhens, shovels, spades and ploughshares (heart-shaped in Red River, butterfly-shaped in Ma River and triangular shaped in Ca River).

- Harvesting tools: sickles and tweezers

+ Iron casting tools: axe casting form mold, weights... found inside the Co Loa bronze drum

+ Carpentry tools: the hollow and flat chisels found inside Viet Khe boat-shaped casket, nails inside Ninh Son tomb (Hanoi).

+ Other tools: spindle-whorls, fishing hooks, casting nets, pottery decorative molds...

3. Domestic wares

In Dong Son culture, the domestic objects made of bronze were the most commonly found in various types including situlae, vessels, vases, pots, basins, pitchers, ladles, spoons, bowls, plates, lamps... Especially, many objects demonstrate elaboration and intricacy in carving technique and delicacy and artistry in decoration. It is believed that excepting serving as household goods, they were decorative ornaments and objects for ceremonial purposes.

Along with bronze material, daily wares made of ceramic kept playing an important role, particularly, the utensils for cooking and kitchen as cooking pots, vases, bowls, plates, cups... Its technique seemed to make a progress; nevertheless, compared to the previous cultures, the aesthetic quality was decreased considerably. Supposedly, Dong Son artisans might have put their efforts and energy much on beautiful bronze products.

The exhibits:

- Thap situla collections: Dao Thinh situla, Hop Minh situla (national treasures), Lang Vac situla (Nghe An), Khe Van, Thuong Bang La, Thap Da Om situlas (Yen Bai)

- Bronze vessel and vase of Viet Khe (Hai Phong), Trung Mau bronze vessel (Ha Noi), Dao Thinh vase (Yen Bai)

- Pitcher with spout in shape of bird and added 3 figurines of sitting man found in Dong Son, Thanh Hoa

- Viet Khe ladle (Hai Phong), Lang Vac ladle (Nghe An)

- Mat Son drum vessel (Thanh Hoa)

- Collections of vases, bowls, urns, pots made of pottery...

4. Weapon collections

Dong Son weapons were very numerous and diversified in terms of types and usage purposes. The weapons for offensive purposes included spearheads, daggers, short swords, battle axes, sickles, harpoons, arrowheads, crossbows. The defensive devices included breastplates for protecting the warrior's chest.

Some weapons could be used for the hunting; nevertheless, for the so-called breastplates, they must be obviously battle devices. This led to a speculation that the social conflicts and wars had been raised in Dong Son time. Anyway, evidences about it were also described on the bronze drums such as on the Ngoc Lu drum, the Hoang Ha drum...

The exhibits:

- Battle axes

- Daggers

- Harpoons

- Arrowheads and crossbows

- Breastplates

5. Musical instruments

Excepting the most important musical instrument or the bronze drums, a popular musical instrument was the bronze bells, including the hammering bells and the swinging bells. The hammering bells were in a flatly semi-oval shape or isosceles trapezium shape, rung by a wooden stick hammering on the outside. The swinging bells were commonly small in size, in other words, they were called clappers because of a clapper hung inside the bell. They are sounded by swinging the bells back and forth against the clappers.

In addition, the Dongsonians had leather drums, the khen (bamboo pipes), senh (coin clappers), phach (small wooden sticks beaten on a small bamboo platform). However, up to now, we have just known about those instruments through the scenes engraved on the bronze drums or on the bronze situlae... or through the sculptures, for example, the statue of a man carrying another who playing a khen on his back, or the figurine of a man playing a khen ornamented on the Viet Khe bronze ladle. It is a hypothesis that due to their constituents of non-durable materials, they have been degraded by the environment and through time.

The exhibits:

- Collections of bells (Lao Cai)

- Mat Son bell

- Clappers found in Viet Khe, Dong Son and Vinh Quang sites

6. Jewelry, works of art

The bronze jewelry were the most commonly found in Dong Son culture in various types including necklaces, bracelets, leg laces, earrings, rings, brooches, belt buckles... Particularly, there was a type of accessories that decorated with the bronze clappers. The Dongsonians also made and adorned with stone and glass jewelries, mainly including bracelets, earrings and beads.

Sculptural art was relatively developed in Dong Son period too. The Dongsonians used statues to characterize themselves and the fauna and flora that close to their life like elephants, tigers, deer, dogs, cocks, frogs, birds, tortoises, snakes, pumpkins, rice flowers... There were two main types of statues or the round statues and the ornamenting figurines. Round statues were free-standing ones while figurines were used to attach to valuable objects for decorative purposes.

The exhibits:

- Leg laces, bracelets, earrings, rings of Lang Vac and Dong Son

- Celadon and glass bracelets, earrings, beads found in Lao Cai, Dao Thinh, Lang Vac, Dong Son, Vinh Quang...

- Brooches, belt buckles...

- Statues: Figurine in a shape of a man carrying another on his back and playing music (national treasure), Khe Quy couple statue (Yen Bai), dagger's handle in human shape and some animal statue of frog, bird, cock, tortoise found in Ha Noi, Nghe An, Lao Cai, Thanh Hoa, Yen Bai.

7. Miniatures

In Dong Son culture, the funeral ceremony was an important ritual. The Dongsonians buried along with the body the grave goods or the production tools, domestic wares, weapons, musical instruments and jewelries... However, they were normally broken, bent or arranged in a manner that to be differed from the living world.

Furthermore, the Dongsonians invented the special small-scale reproductions used for grave purposes, called miniatures. The burial of the miniatures aimed at saving materials, time and working energy, moreover, it was to differentiate them from the goods used in the living world. In parallel, it met a social belief that the dead people could be equipped with necessary and precious goods.

The exhibits:

- Drums, situlae, urns, vessels, axes, ploughshares in miniature forms found in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Hanoi.

- Some graved goods found in broken status: situlae, spearheads...

8. Collections of cultural exchange

Dong Son culture proved to be an open culture that interacted with other synchronic cultures. Many typical drums and other products of Dong Son culture have been found in outside cultures as Sa Huynh culture, Central Highlands and Southeast region and overseas as Southeast Asia and South China. Otherwise, many objects of foreign origins have been reported in the layers of Dongson culture. This interaction was also expressed on the Dong Son artifacts that had the characteristics and convergent factors from Dian, Han and Central Asian cultures... Those were elements to form and make Dong Son culture active and open by acquiring the outside advances of technology and economy.


- Dong Son daggers found in Quang Nam province (exchanging between Dong Son and Sa Huynh culture)

- Lao Cai drum (Dong Son and Dian culture)

- Silver bowl found in Lao Cai (Dong Son – Central Asia)

- Knife, sword and Viet Khe bell (Dong Son – Chinese culture)

- Drum vessel, censor, mirror, situla (Dong Son – Han culture)

- Bai Coi collections;

Bai Coi was a Metal Ages archaeological site locating at Hong Linh valley, Xuan Vien commune, Nghi Xuan district, Ha Tinh province. It bordered both Dong Son civilization and the synchronic Sa Huynh civilization, so there used to be a drastic exchange on the culture with proofs regarding the burial rituals and types of remnants. Many objects of Dong Son culture as what found in Ma River Delta and Ca River Delta have been unearthed there, such as many kinds of bronze axes, pottery jars and steamers and spindle-shaped vases... along with typical artifacts of Sa Huynh culture such as three pronged earrings, lidded urns in shape of a truncated cone...


Urns used as casket with lid and in shape of a truncated cone, spindle-shaped vases, three pronged earrings, glass bracelets.

The exhibition "Dong Son culture" is now available at the Special Gallery of the VNMH Museum (1 Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) and will last till end of April 2015.

Nguyen Quoc Huu

EN: Tran Trang




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