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History museum drums up Dong Son artefacts (September 29, 2005)

History up close: A museum-goer checks out the Ngoc Lu bronze drums on display at the Viet Nam History Museum at 1 Pham Ngu Lao Street, Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
To celebrate the 80th anniversary of discovering Dong Son artefacts, the Viet Nam History Museum dedicated several events to the ancient culture (850-40 BC), including an exhibition of 400 artefacts found in villages along the Ma River in central Thanh Hoa Province and three documentaries on the period. Museum director Pham Quoc Quan spoke with Tin Tuc (News) newspaper about this exhibition.

The artefacts, discovered in the 1920s, were categorised as made by the 'Dong Son civilisation' by Austrian archaeologist R Heine Geldern in 1934, a term he used for all Bronze Age communities in Yunnan (China), Indochina and Indonesia. Vietnamese archaeologists are only now beginning to research the 2,500-year-old culture. What resources will the exhibition draw from?

We will introduce the Dong Son civilisation with French research conducted since a fisherman stumbled upon some bronze wares 80 years ago in Dong Son Village.

Hearing of the discovery, French collector L Pajot rushed to the site and began a large-scale excavation of the region. In 1929, an academic from the L'Ecole d'Extreme Orient (School of the Far East), Victor Goloubew, linked the Dong Son artefacts with others found in the Hong (Red) River Delta and presented them as Bronze Age relics.

The civilisation began in the New Stone, or Neolithic Age, and steadily developed until the end of the Iron Age, when northern invaders entered. From the 2nd century BC, Dong Son civilisation slowly integrated foreign influences. We have evidence suggesting the civilisation began in Viet Nam, not in another country in China as Chinese scholars believed.

The Ngoc Lu bronze drum represents a typical Dong Son object, even though many foreign scholars, including Victor Goloubew and Henri Parmentier, say its style is not of native origin. Can you elucidate this debate?

The Dong Son drum, also called Heger I Bronze Drum, is classified by Austrian archaeologist Franz Heger as the earliest drum of its kind and was played at religious ceremonies, festivals and funerals. Shaped like an hourglass, the drum's beat is loud and long.

Some say the drum is modelled after drums made by the Dian civilisation in Yunnan, China, a contemporary of Dong Son. It's believed that the two cultures came into contact with each other and exchanged goods. Though their drums are very similar, many details suggest a divergence: Dian drums are decorated with scenes and symbols indicating a nomadic existence – coconut trees, islands, and peninsulas – as compared to the Dong Son's images of sedentary life. Their designs are distinctly different: the Dian drum's proportions are larger than the Dong Son's slim frame.

Recent research by both domestic and foreign archaeologists suggest that the Dong Son civilisation was also a contemporary of the Ban Chiang and Non Nok Tha in Thailand.

Many Dong Son artefacts are no longer in Viet Nam and are floating around the world; even the Ngoc Lu bronze drum, discovered in Thanh Hoa's Long Doi Son Pagoda, was bought by, and moved to, L'Ecole d'Extreme Orient (School of the Far East) in France. The museum's collection boasts 400 objects, but is that enough to represent Dong Son's diversity?

To deepen our collection, the history museum, working with Vietnamese archaeologists, have expanded the archaeological digs at the Ma River in Thanh Hoa, and sites along the Hong River and the Ca River in northern Phu Tho Province.

Though many objects were claimed by French archaeologists working in Indochina in the early 20th century, most succumbed to a natural fate. The severe climate paired with ancient religious customs dictating that all objects must be broken before burial with the dead, has left most artefacts in poor condition. Also, our limited budget makes it difficult to conduct large-scale excavations so we must narrow our focus on objects from already-established sites, like the ones along the Ma, Ca and Hong rivers.

Japan's Kyushu National Museum wants to make a replica of the Ngoc Lu bronze drum and include it as part of their permanent collection?

Yes. Two years ago, the Kyushu National Museum asked us to help make a replica of the Ngoc Lu drum, however we cannot find a handicraft village capable of executing it. The museum recently asked to borrow our Dong Son collection to exhibit at its official opening next year. We are waiting for a formal request before meeting with concerned bodies to decide.

Reprinted from VietNamNet


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