Dong Son in Indonesia

Before the arrival of the Hindu/Buddhist cultures in Indonesia there was a period that I call pre-history. Not much is known about the culture of this time except that some of the artifacts we see are what are from the Dong Son.

The Dong Son culture  originated in South East Asia about 3000 years ago and was named after the place where a major excavation occurred. It was a bronze age culture and their skill in casting is best demonstrated by the bronze drums which are dated as being from about 600 BC. The drums can be large and are decorated by flying birds, human forms, sometimes frogs and sometimes boats.

As well as the drums we sometimes see axes, daggers and spears, earings, rings and bracelets, and. small mystical animals. 

Recent archeology in the North of Bali has discovered trade with India and South East Asia mainland and suggests that possibly bronze casting occurred in Bali in the first century BC. Since the first excavations conducted by Ardika from 1987–1989, and several subsequent seasons at Sembiran and Pacung (1990–2008), large quantities of Indian pottery and evidence of local bronze-casting have suggested the presence of a first century AD harbour site with simultaneous links to India and bronze-casting centres in Mainland Southeast Asia
 The first century AD dating for Indian contact proposed by Ardika and
Bellwood (1991), however, was assessed based on the chronology of the Indian pottery and not on radiocarbon dates.

The bronzes were most probably imported, however soon a bronze casting industry was developed in East Java, This is continuous up till the present and we can see a gradual evolution from the simple designs of the early bronzes through to the quite elaborate Mahapahit bronzes of the 14th century.

Over the years we have had Dong Son bronzes brought to us by traveling tukang antik (lit. antique worker) and unfortunately, the exact origin of the objects are opaque, either because they don't know, or because they don't want to say to prevent us from getting close to the source. These are magical pieces and Veronica has collected 3 small pendants which she is now going to make into necklaces with some of her special beads

                This is one of her pendants.Bronze Bird 5,5 cm x 4 cm x 2 cm

This will not be the first time that she has used a Dong Son item in a necklace. In that instance she made a necklace using an ear ring to which she had a gold band and loop made for hanging it.

One of the features of the Dong Son bronze is the deep oxidation. the metal has almost changed to glass.

It is conjecture on my part that although much of the bronze described as Dong Son was cast in Tonkin, that part of Indochina we now call Vietnam, it is not inconceivable that they exported the technology as well. Whatever, it was not long after the end of the Dong Son era that elaborate statues were being cast in Indonesia.

A well-known example is the Moon Drum of Pejeng in Bali which is revered for its magical qualities. Many exist on the Island of Alor where they are still used as part of important ceremonial exchanges. The example I use here is from the island of Sumba.

A feature of this drum is a sunburst pattern on the face that scholars have speculated may represent the Northern Star

The Dong Son people were seafarers and traders. Their sea routes took them all through the Islands of Indonesia and elements of their interaction can be seen from Sumatra to Timor, through Borneo and, the Philippines. There is also evidence that overland trade with India also was a significant connection, in which case the trade would have definitely been two way. One scholar even theorizes that there may have been a connection with Scandinavia. Robert von Heine-Geldern, pointed out that as the earliest Bronze Age drums in the world come from the 8th century BC Scandinavia and the Balkans. He suggested that some of the decorative motifs including tangent circles, ladder-motif, meanders, and hatched triangles may have roots in the Balkans. Another frequent feature of the drum is a sunburst pattern on the face that scholars have speculated may represent the Northern Star

Certain relief patterns on the bronzes suggest the “ship of the dead” designs, like those still woven in textiles in both Borneo and Sumatra. We an examples of what could be a dragon ship, possibly a ship of the dead.

Two-headed Dragon ship. Is it possible that this is a Buddha sitting on it?


  • Robert and I enjoy learning more about the art and archaeology of Bali and Indonesia generally. Thank you for sharing. Jo

    Jo Maindonald
  • Fascinating…look forward to more.

    Christine Encel

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