Dongson Culture - Bronze Age in Southeast Asia

Bronze Age Drums, Fishing and Hunting in Vietnam

Bronze Statue of Dog, Dongson Culture
Standing dog, Dongson, c. 4th century CE, bronze, Honolulu Museum of Art. Hiart

Dongson culture (sometimes spelled Dong Son, and translated as East Mountain) is the name given to a loose confederation of societies who lived in northern Vietnam likely between 600 BC-AD 200. The Dongson were late bronze/early iron age metallurgists, and their cities and villages were located in the deltas of the Hong, Ma and Ca rivers of northern Vietnam: as of 2010, more than 70 sites had been discovered in a variety of environmental contexts.

The Dongson culture was first recognized in the late 19th century during Western-led excavations of the cemetery and settlement of the type site of Dongson. The culture is best known for "Dong Son drums": distinctive, giant ceremonial bronze drums lavishly decorated with ritual scenes and depictions of warriors. These drums have been found throughout southeast Asia.

Chronology

One of the debates still swirling in the literature about the Dong Son is the chronology. Direct dates on objects and sites are rare: many of organic materials were recovered from wetland regions and conventional radiocarbon dates have proven elusive. Exactly when and how bronze-working arrived in southeast Asia is still a matter of fierce debate. Nevertheless, cultural phases have been identified, if the dates are in question.

  • Dong Khoi/Dongson Culture (latest phase): type 1 bronze drums, daggers with garlic-bulb shaped handles, armor, bowls, containers. (probably 600 BC-AD 200, but some scholars suggest a start as early as 1000 BC)
  • Go Mun Period: more bronze, socketed spears, fishhooks, bronze strings, axes and scythes, few stone tools; pottery with everted rims
  • Dong Dau Period: new elements include better developed bronze working, pottery is thick and heavy, with combed decorations of geometric patterns
  • Phung Nguyen Period (earliest): stone tool technology, axes, trapezoidal or rectangular adzes, chisels, knives, points and ornaments; wheel-thrown pots, fine, thin-walled, polished, dark rose to light rose or brown. Decorations are geometric; some minor amounts of bronze working (perhaps as early as 1600 BC)

    Material Culture

    What is clear from their material culture, Dongson people split their food economies between fishing, hunting and farming. Their material culture included agricultural tools such as socketed and boot-shaped axes, spades and hoes; hunting tools such as tanged and plain arrow-heads; fishing tools such as grooved net sinkers and socketed spearheads; and weapons such as daggers. Spindle whorls and clothing decoration attest to textile production; and personal ornamentation include minature bells, bracelets, belt hooks and buckles.

    Drums, decorated weapons and personal ornamentation were made with bronze: iron was the choice for utilitarian tools and weapons without decoration. Bronze and iron forges have been identified within a handful of Dongson communities. Bucket-shaped ceramic pots called situlae were decorated with geometric zoned incised or combed patterns.

    Living Dongson

    Dongson houses were set on stilts with thatched roofs. Grave deposits include a few bronze weapons, drums, bells, spittoons, situlae and daggers. A handful of larger communities such as Co Loa contained fortifications, and there is some evidence for social differentiation (ranking) among the house sizes and in the artifacts buried with individuals.

    Scholars are split on whether "Dongson" was a state level society with control over what is now northern Vietnam or a loose confederation of villages that shared cultural material and practices. If a state society was formed, the driving force may have been the need for water control of the Red River delta region.

    Boat Burials

    The importance of sea-going to Dongson society is made clear by the presence of a handful of boat-burials, graves that use segments of canoes as coffins. At Dong Xa, a research team (Bellwood et al.) discovered a large preserved burial which used a 2.3-meter (7.5-foot) long segment of a canoe. The body, wrapped carefully in several layers of a shroud of ramie (Boehmeria sp) textile, was placed in the canoe segment, with the head at the open end and feet in the intact stern or bow.

    A Dong Son cord-marked pot as placed next to the head; a small flanged cup made of red lacquered wood called a 'beggar's cup" was found inside the pot, similar to one dated 150 BC at Yen Bac.

    Two bulkheads were placed at the open end. The person buried was an adult aged 35-40, indeterminate sex. Two Han dynasty coins minted from 118 BC-220 AD were placed within the burial, and parallels to western Han tomb at Mawangdui at Hunan, China ca. 100 BC: Bellwood and colleagues dated the Dong Xa boat burial as ca. 20-30 BC.

    A second boat-burial was identified at Yen Bac. Looters discovered this burial and removed an adult body, but a few bones of a 6-9 month old child were found during professional excavations along with a few textiles and bronze artifacts. A third burial at Viet Khe (although not a real "boat burial", the coffin was built from the planks of a boat) was probably dated between the 5th or 4th centuries BC.

    Characteristics of the boat architecture included dowels, mortises, tenons, rabbeted plank edges, and a locked mortise-and-tenon idea which may have been a borrowed concept from traders or trading networks from the Mediterranean via routes through India to Vietnam early in the first century BC.

    Debates and Theoretical Disputes

    Two major debates exist in the literature about Dongson culture.

    The first, touched on above, has to do with when and how bronze-working came into southeast Asia: see the Ban Chiang article to read more about that. The other has to do with the drums: were the drums an invention of Vietnamese Dongson culture or that of the Chinese mainland?

    This second debate appears to be the result of early western influence and southeast Asia trying to shake that off. Archaeological research on Dongson drums took place beginning in the late 19th century and until the 1950s it was nearly exclusively the province of westerners, particularly Austrian archaeologist Franz Heger. Then after that, Vietnamese and Chinese scholars concentrated on them, and in the 1970s and 1980s, an emphasis on the geographic and ethnic origins arose. Vietnamese scholars said the first bronze drum was invented in the Red and Black River valleys of northern Vietnam by the Lac Viet, and then spread to other parts of southeast Asia and southern China. Chinese archaeologists said that the Pu in southern China made the first bronze drum in Yunnan, and the technique was simply adopted by the Vietnamese. See the article on Dong Son drums for additional information.

    Dongson Sites: Dongson, Co Loa, Dong Xa, Yen Bac, Viet Khe, Xuan An, Dong Dau

    Sources

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