Patterns of antiquity

05/01/2018 15:41

Dong Son bronze drums fashioned two-thousand years ago continue to intrigue and delight us

The Dong Son Culture is famous worldwide thanks to its breathtaking Dong Son bronze drums. Each of these ancient drums is unique, as they were crafted by hand. Each drum is a work of art that reflects the creativity and skills of the artisans who made it and the civilization that flourished here over  2,000 years ago.

  The Mieu Mon Bronze Drum is such a masterpiece. This drum was named after a locality in Hanoi's Chuong My District, which has an ancient titular temple called Mieu Mon. The locals who unearthed this drum carried it to Mieu Mon Titular Temple, where it was displayed and worshipped. During every village festival and sacrifice ceremony, this drum was used as a percussion instrument. Today, it is stored in the National Museum of History.
 The drum looks symmetrical, its body divided into three distinct sections: a large head, a virtually trapezoid trunk and an extended plinth. The drumhead measures 72cm in diameter and is 48cm thick.

This beautiful object tells a silent story about the lives of our long-ago Vietnamese forefathers in the Northern delta. To create decorative swathes, ancient artisans carved on the inside of a terracotta mold before pouring molten copper into it. The finished drum had swathes of bold patterns.
  In the center of the drum's head lies an engraved starburst with 14 points, mingled with patterns of peacock feathers. Around the starburst lie 14 rings of concentric decorative patterns. The sixth and ninth rings stand out. The sixth ring features two herds of deer carved symmetrically around the center. Each herd has four slender deer, their round eyes dotted in the centers, with four long limbs and spiky antlers like branches. The bodies of the deer are decorated with dotted and striped patterns. Lying between these two herds of deer are two groups of four other animals. These beasts are of the same species, with long limbs, long tails, mouths holding prey and eyes with dots in the centers.

  The ninth ring features patterns of 16 birds flying in the same direction. These birds have outstretched wings, long necks, long beaks and a bunch of feathers at their napes. They are shown holding prey. Their wings and tails are decorated with short parallel lines. Their eyes are circles with dots in the centers. Perhaps they depict storks. In addition to the rings portraying birds and animals, there are also narrower rings featuring geometric patterns. The geometric symbols of the Dong Son Culture include short parallel lines, triangles, dotted stripes, concentric circles dotted in the centers,  zigzags, etc.

In her 1940 book "Traces of the cults of the sun in Indochina", French archeologist Madeleine Colani states that the central starburst is a symbol of the sun. Dong Son inhabitants worshipped the Sun God as the source of the universe, life and agriculture. The male and female deer also point to the concept of proliferation and the harmony of yin and yang, conveying wishes for animals to multiply and bountiful crops. The storks spreading their wings would have been familiar to peasants working hard in the vast paddy fields.

 The curved bottom lip of the drumhead is decorated with five rings of patterns. The central ring depicts six boats heading in the same direction. This scene might depict a rowing contest. The boats are decorated with geometric patterns including short parallel lines. Between these boats lie patterns of standing birds with long tails holding big fish in their beaks. Around this central decorative ring lie other rings with geometric patterns.

  Decorations on the trunk include square patches divided by lines of geometric patterns. Inside the squares, marching warriors in feathered cloaks and feathered hats hold a war hammer in one hand and a shield in the other. Above them hover birds with long beaks.
  The decorative patterns on the Mieu Mon drum are typical of the graphic arts of the Dong Son culture and unlike those of any other culture. Decorations of short lines and dotted stripes on the inside edges that depict warriors, deer, birds and boats engender a sense of artistic liberty and refinement. Dong Son artisans created symmetrical designs. They also mastered the art of perspective, portraying birds, deer, humans and fish that are not markedly disproportionate from reality.

  The Mieu Mon drum is one of the finest existing Dong Son artworks, contributing to our art history and national identity. Dong Son people portrayed themselves and their colorful lives through the graphic language found on these bronze drums. By chance or by choice, they bequeathed an invaluable gem to Vietnam's cultural treasury.

Story: Professor Trinh Sinh
Photos: courtesy of Professor Trinh Sinh, Nguyen Quoc Binh and the Institute of Archeology

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