Since 1863 ce, when a treaty between France and King Norodom was signed, the northern BCE site of Samrong Sen and few others around the Tonle Sap basin were explored. Many pieces in stone or bronze were sent and published in the Archives of Musée de Toulouse (France) in 1879, without any drum, but it was the first exhibition of Cambodian archaeology abroad. Then, priority for research was given to Angkor sites and civilisations where bronze was used to produce wonderful statues, but never drums. For certain, the Hindu priests and later the Buddhists monks of the Khmer Empire were inclined to resist these important symbols of an old but recurrent Animism.
Early bronze drums were recently found in any Cambodian areas, their origins remain uncertain and, until possible discoveries of appropriate local copper mining or casting sites, two hypothesis are possible a priori:
After a presentation of bronze drums encountered in Cambodia a final paragraph will be devoted to the local understandings about their symbols.
“Ceremonial big Drum”: this huge piece is typically Heger I, beautiful and impressive “mushroom” in spite of a big shock, probably from late first millennium BCE. (Figs. 1-2) Measuring 57 cm high with a tympanum diameter of 96 cm, brown/grey colored over time, its four (double) lateral handles subsist. Tympan’s ornamentation, without frogs or rim, covered classically all the surface with a big star in the centre (12 rays) and six concentric bands with geometric and figurative motifs difficult to read. The cylinder’s decoration is more understandable with three bands separated by circles. From top to down: a procession of long boats; a succession of animals including elephants and deer; the third band being covered with feathered human figures. After a detailed description, Henri Parmentier (EFEO - 1920) suggested hypothesis in which the boats could represent the passage to another world, animals and animism being a help to people during and after life.
That classical Dong Son’s production is confirmed by the true provenance of the drum, not publicly expressed. At the beginning of the 20th century it was sent from Hanoï by French scholars to Phnom Penh, maybe to help with the creation of the first National Museum.
Measuring only 27 cm high with a diameter of 55 cm, its tympanum was surrounded by four equidistant frogs of which two are missing, possibly broken and put in tombs to honor the deceased as was probably the case for the missing one of the four lateral (single) handles. The tympan was decorated with a central star (12 rays) and four circular ranks of which the most visible one is sculpted with stylized flying birds. By contrast the mantle looks very blank with only two small geometric circles on top and bottom. It is noticed Heger I but, considering its very low base and the unpolished lateral decoration, it could be referred to an Heger IV type.
Its provenance is apparently mysterious as far as it was confiscated when tentatively exported from Laos in 1925 by a certain Dr Bachimont.
The Museum’s reserve contains one drum that is interesting with a metallic plaque on its base: “From the Royal Government of Laos to His Excellency Son Sann”–a gift to Cambodia when Son Sann was Prime Minister in 1967/68. This beautiful piece (D68 / H54 cm) from Heger III type very classical in Lao culture, with four pairs of frogs on the tympanum and small lateral sculptures of elephants walking down was greatly influenced by (Karenni) Burma, if not actually made there. At least, even if not so old, this gift demonstrated how important was the remembrance of a “drum symbolism” at least at the top levels of both nations. For the Laotians because it was part of their core culture albeit a typical “Burmese” style but also for the Cambodians protecting in their Royal Palace several other (Karenni) Heger III exhibited, if not played, during their last Kings’ funerals.
Very important, it was the first documented excavation of an early drum in Cambodia. Now a permanent exhibit in the National Museum and supremely interesting, this reconstitution and its very true components will be examined below with a corpus of researches made recently around Prohear, Village 10.8, and Bit Meas, east of Phnom Penh (Prey Veng and Kampong Cham provinces).
Visiting the National Museum gives a good opportunity to look at other great “Cambodian members” of the early “Bronze cultural family” from 4th century BCE to maybe 2nd century CE as written on their notices.
Of which, no more detailed here because surpassing this book’s core subject:
Recently it was considered that urns, and not only bells and drums, could be also musical instruments with a central blank square panel to be tapped on either side.
The stories of these successive findings are aggregated not only because they occurred in the same area and from the same period but also because their discoveries were equally unexpected and probably preclude a lot of new one’s here and there in the country.
Supreme originality in Prohear (Fig. 75): a drum laid in burial 4, dated between 200 BCE and 100 CE, contained the skull of a lady (oriented south/south west) bearing the two richest gold bracelets found in the site and surrounded with other precious artefacts. “The Lady” was a contemporaneous of the late Western Han (202 BCE-CE 9) and villagers reported that they had observed this very specific “drum and head” oriented position in other destroyed tombs. According to Andreas Reinecke (Bonn) leader of the researchers, this funerary custom was only known very far away from the burial site of Kele, in the southern Chinese province of Guinzhou (1700 km north), and from sites in Thanh Hóa province (Vietnam) – and it can be added, in Indonesia with children’s skeletons found in bronze drums in Plawangan (Central Java), among others.
The burial 4 bronze drum itself (D45 / H30 cm), partly broken, typed Heger I, had probably been imported from abroad. Made of copper-tin alloy with lead (15%) it has been outlined (Fig. 9), with its “classical” decorations:
The answers proposed by the team of discoverers are only hypothesis in the absence of traces of copper mining at less than hundreds of kilometers. To be so wealthy compared with its neighbors Prohear must have known a successful period either hosting a lucrative activity of production or commerce not specified until now, or having played an important political role. And why not in relation to the not so far rich antique “international” harbor of Oc Eo (now in interior of South Vietnam) and/or to the mysterious Kingdom of Funan?
Other detailed arguments based on comparative studies of artefacts (surpassing the limits of our book) were also suggested to imagine the venue from the north of people flying the famous Chinese Western Han Emperor Wudi (147-87 BCE). The respective chronologies could coincide to explain such wealthy graves after an important battle or an exile to the south with links maintained with (present day) China or North Vietnam. Suppliers could also come from Dong Nai River area in southern Vietnam, where a strong bronze working tradition is attested by casting sites (without drums until now) at the end of the first Millennium BCE. Or from northern Laos including Sepon area where drums were may be produced (See chapter Laos)
Last but not least hypothesis: the city of Prohear, not far from the Mekong, was possibly a kind of collective centre for expensive international trade goods as suggested in Thailand for Ongbah cave with similar drums.
Deploring the destructions encountered have a look at the photo taken by a visitor of a beautiful “bronze pot” sold early on by the villagers and then probably exported, without knowledge of its value nor of its possible use as a drum before the arrival of the archaeologists (Fig. 8). No doubts that the old religious beliefs have been completely forgotten by the modern peasants.
Angkor area strictly speaking
No bronze drum has been yet discovered in the central Angkor area basically influenced by Indian cultures. Maybe did they exist and have been destroyed as “animist relics”? Maybe the soils have not been dug sufficiently until now, attention being first given to edifices? If so, copper and tin metals could have come from mines to be found in Cambodia or already repertoried in foreign territories such as in nearby Thailand or Laos...Early metal working (Bronze and Iron) existed in Samrong Sen (southeast of Tonle Sap great lake) and also in Ratanariki province (Northeast Cambodia). New researches by air to localize archaeological basements under the tropical forest’s canopy will hopefully permit to find other bronze ateliers.
Today, only one bronze drum (Heger I) is protected inside the Angkor Conservation site in Siem Reap (D52 / H37 cm). Legends are numerous but no one knows its precise provenance as it was confiscated from a smuggler: probably about two thousand years old, from Red River Valley. (Fig. 9)
In the provincial museum of Kampong Cham (120 km east from Phnom Penh) is the unique bronze drum which came from Prek Krabau at twenty kilometers distant, a site never officially excavated. (Fig. 13)
During our private visit (February 2014) the villagers, fishermen and peasants, told openly how they recently dug in about two hectares on a slight slope where, after the rains, funeral artefacts surfaced, of which black and white ceramic typical from last centuries BCE. With the help of metal detectors they positioned their digs and discovered from one meter down hundreds of collars, bracelets, rings, sometimes including gold (never silver) and semi precious stones as agates. Many drums were also found of which the biggest of 24 kilos was taken by the police with final destination Kampong Cham Museum. (D57 / H40 cm) Its tympanum is unclear to read without frogs or snails and partly broken. (Heger I type).
Villagers said that many other drums, from about five to ten kilos on average, some with frogs on the tympanum, were sold with other artefacts from the necropolis for about ten thousand USD in total, a considerable amount shared between the villagers and paid by smugglers to be possibly sold around the “Russian market” in Phnom-Penh. From here precisely we received comments about past bargains and proposals to buy “newly discovered” old bronze drums near Battambang. A sad demonstration at least confirming the existence of an early Bronze Drum’s Cambodian Culture much more extensive than imagined.
From Prek Pouy village/Memot district (Phnom Penh at 200 km) was only preserved the central fragment (29x24 cm – Fig. 78) of an old tympan now displayed in the Memot Centre created as Museum/laboratory presided by Mrs Seng Sonetra.
For M. Heng Sophady, Deputy Director General for Cultural Heritage (Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts of Cambodia), other antique cemeteries excavations involving possibly bronze drums could soon be officially organized, based on interesting indices all over the country, the danger being that villagers might be tempted first. The spectacular results in Prohear paved the way to international interest, meaning experts and subsidies to help new generation of enthusiastic Cambodian archaeologists to study in depth what is part of “The First Golden Civilisation of Cambodia” as officially called.
All kinds of gongs or bells or classical drums had been mentioned in historical foreign scripts. Strangely, not any bronze drum or reference to the so-called Đông Sơn culture figure in the old epigraphic Cambodian sources so carefully studied by Olivier de Bernon (EFEO). Kindly, he only reported to us a nice local legend which could be in relation with the frogs appearances on a circular tympanum: “A hare was challenged to a race by a frog, who persuaded her sisters to take part and to position themselves all around the lake-the path of the race. The hare, because he never looked back, did not win the race”. (a story so comparable with Jean de La Fontaine’s French poem about a race between a hare and a turtle, or any old Greek fables.)
Local beliefs up to now
As in all agrarian societies, animism pervaded all aspects of life in Cambodia, not only in the early times but also until now with the offering of food to the souls of the ancestors, particularly during the Phcum Ben festival. It is believed that if the “forces of nature” are worshipped with venerated ancestors, it means fertility and happiness in day-to-day life. At the beginning of this book has been described a general symbolic approach of the bronze drums. From discussions in Cambodia with neo-animist believers, Buddhists or not, can be added here some interpretations given locally to the symbols encountered on drums’ tympanum or cylinder:
Researches are only beginning in all Cambodia and future drum discoveries will possibly make this present chapter partly obsolete in the near future, particularly if local sites of early mining and/or casting bronze drums were found.
Recently, like in nearby Laos or Thailand, the findings demonstrated the existence of an early and obscure drums’ culture from late BCE up to early first millennium ce. Before a kind of “Indianization process” giving birth to the Angkor Khmer Empire promoted by Hindu and then Buddhist both opposed to any animism survival.
At this stage we cannot consider that the present Cambodian territory was a “Bronze drum leader” during an eventual “First Golden Age” supposed to begin more than two thousand years ago. The facts are clear: the rare old bronze drums encountered until now never presented “specific Cambodian aspects”, being probably produced around the Red River Basin, nowadays in south China and/or north Vietnam.
The Ministry of Culture is fortunately very concerned but locals have definitely “forgotten” these old beliefs and cults. Even Heger III later productions welcomed at the Cambodian Court level from Laos/Burma were never requested by people, at the difference of Thailand. Only the more educated speak of “Rain drums” but, for the great majority, the poor wording of “chhnang kvan” (bronze pots) is used, only representing for them some value when smuggled to be sold abroad.
Mrs Seng Sonetra is now Faculty of Archeology vice-Dean in Phnom-Penh and Head of Memot center, she kindly accepted to testify.
Years ago, you had a key role in the findings of Prohear, can you tell us more about your personal role in that achievement?
“During the many excavation campaigns (from 2008 to 2011) in Prohear, I was there as a co-leader of the excavation together with Dr. Andreas Reinecke (German Archaeological Institute in Bonn, Germany) and Mr. Vin Laychour (General Director of Heritage, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodia).
The excavations of the Iron Age cemetery at Prohear, Prey Veng province of Cambodia, were done after and during the site was heavily looted. Some months after the villagers started to dig we got the shocking news from students of the Faculty of Archaeology (Royal University of Fine Arts), who were at another site in this area for field studies as part of their final theses. Until the beginning of the excavation, about 99% of the site was looted. Nearly every square meter of the village was dug up, and houses were moved. Thousands of artefacts including gold objects, beads, potteries, bronze objects including weapons and tools as well as many bronze drums were unearthed and sold in a short time. According to our interviews with villagers, more than 30 drums were found by diggers and sold immediately to middlemen.
We were grateful for getting the permission to excavate the main road through the village, which was the only area which was not so heavely looted. However, during the excavation we realized that the road was also destroyed from both side. Many parts of the burials were cut. Fortunately, we could save some burials. At the first excavation day we uncovered the shoulder of a Heger-I drum. At first, we did not recognize that it was a drum, but thought maybe it is a part of a big bronze pot. We never expected to discover one of the famous bronze drums. Excavating deeper, we still were not sure what this strange object was until we uncovered one handle of the drum. For the whole team it was an exciting situation and late at night, all men in our team take their beds and slept at the excavation trench. All of them were in deep fear, not because of thief, but of the Ghost and the silent night in this remote village. Sounds from animal, birds and tree were making them more and more scare. Altogether seven nights our male students slept at the trench, until we took away the drum from the burial. During day time we were happy to see the drum we found for the first time in the history of excavation in Cambodia. We were really proud.
Despite its weak state caused by the pressure of the soil on the top and caused by chemical reactions, the in situ discovered drum still looks fabulous. Everything was at their best place, the big and small clay pots, the buffalo horn bracelet with a gold bangle inside, a gold finger ring, and iron tools. We brought the whole drum with its content to the lab at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Phnom Penh to continue the excavation. Inside the drum were many gold earrings, gold spirals, spindle whorls, two clay bowls and a human skull from a woman, these all completed the equipment of the burial. We never expected to find so many offerings inside the drum.”
Until now, just the Prohear bronze drum was discovered in Cambodia by an archaeological excavation. The whole complex was well recorded and published.
As University Vice-Dean also in charge of Memot Museum in Kampong Cham Province, how do you expect the Bronze Drums researches in Cambodia from now on?
“Finding the artefacts is very exciting and what is more important is to teach the new generation, students from the Faculty of Archaeology (Royal University of Fine Arts), how to excavate systematically.
In Cambodia, unlike Vietnam or China, not much research was done about bronze drums and not so much is published. Up to now, we have just an unpublished-thesis of Mr. Em Kim Sreang (2009) from the Faculty of Archaeology (Royal University of Fine Arts), and some short articles from few authors. Further research about bronze drums in Cambodia is necessary. Around 60 looted bronze drums from two Iron Age sites (Bit Meas and Prohear), in Prey Veng Province, were recorded. All were transported to the antiquity markets abroad
Bronze drum is not a new subject for Cambodia. However, not many drum were left for us to further our studies. Research on bronze drum is very much needed. Cambodian students need more documentation of bronze drum to enlarge their knowledge. Collaboration between foreign Institute who lead the researches in the region and from other part of the world must be done.”