Bronze; H. 4 in. (10.2 cm)
Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Bequest of Samuel Eilenberg, 1998 (2000.284.57)
The discovery in the late seventeenth century of large, elaborately incised drums in mainland and island Southeast Asia first alerted Western scholars to the existence in the region of distinctive early bronze-working cultures. Ranging in height from a few inches to over six feet, up to four feet in diameter, and often of considerable weight, such drums are the most widely dispersed products of the Dongson culture. Examples produced in Vietnam, in addition to works made locally, have been found in South China, throughout mainland Southeast Asia, and in Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Irian Jaya. The function of these drums, often found in burials, remains unclear: they may have been used in warfare or as part of funerary or other ceremonial rites. According to his biography in the Hou Han Shu (History of the Later Han), Ma Yuan (14 B.C.49 A.D.), the Chinese general who subdued a Vietnamese uprising in 4043 A.D., confiscated and destroyed the bronze drums of the local chieftains who were his adversaries, attesting to their political significance.
Models of the drums, produced in bronze or clay, were made to be included in burials. This small bronze example has the rounded top, curved middle, and splayed base often found in drums from Vietnam. The central loop and the four small frogs on the tympanum are characteristic features of examples produced from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. The starburst pattern in the center of the tympanum, a standard motif on Dongson drums, is surrounded by a row of linked concentric circles and crosshatching. These designs are repeated around the side of the top section and just above the base. On the center of the drum, four stylized scenes showing warriors with feathered hats, some seated in boats, some on the ground, alternate with hatched areas.