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:

  • either, as it was thought until now, early bronze drums were bought from other regions, mainly from Red River Valley before distribution via the Mekong River and tributaries.
  • or, if we consider the growing number of drums discovered, at least part of them were built in situ with possibly the help of any northern itinerant “drum expert team” with ores ingots coming from abroad. In the latter case, to be demonstrated, it is possible that the ores, copper, tin, or lead, could be imported from Phu Lon in the northeast or the Wong Pracan Valley in central Thailand (Khorat Plateau) or from northern sites like Villabouly (Sepon) close to Savannakhet (Laos).

After a presentation of bronze drums encountered in Cambodia a final paragraph will be devoted to the local understandings about their symbols.

Fig.1. PPNM - Ceremonial big Drum – (D96 / H57 cm)
Fig.1. PPNM - Ceremonial big Drum – (D96 / H57 cm)
PPNM Ceremonial big drum: decoration detail on the cylinder
Fig. 2. PPNM Ceremonial big drum: decoration detail on the cylinder

Bronze drums in Phnom Penh National Museum (PPNM)

 “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.


‘Ceremonial’ small drum

PPNM Ceremonial small drum (D55 / H27 cm)
Fig. 3. PPNM Ceremonial small drum (D55 / H27 cm)

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.

Heger III

Fig. 4. PPNM Heger III drum, official recent gift from Laos to Cambodia
Fig. 4. PPNM Heger III drum, official recent gift from Laos to Cambodia

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.

“Original drum in its Tomb’s (no. 4) from Prohear”

Fig. 5. PPNM Reconstitution of Prohear tomb (D 45/H 30 cm for the drum)
Fig. 5. PPNM Reconstitution of Prohear tomb (D 45/H 30 cm for the drum)

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).

Fig. 6. (Left) PPNM Kandal bell (H55 / D27 cm) / Fig. 7. (Right) PPNM Chek Angre urn (H55 / D25 cm)
Fig. 6. (Left) PPNM Kandal bell (H55 / D27 cm) / Fig. 7. (Right) PPNM Chek Angre urn (H55 / D25 cm)

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:

  • The (Kandal) bell (H55 / Large 27 cm maximum at bottom) fully decorated with spire designs as on many drums (Fig. 76) on all its faces.
  • The (Chek Angre) urn (H55 / Large 25 maximum at center) with a decoration much more sophisticated than the Kandal Bell, of which ranks of boats and animals in its middle (cervi, peacocks...) as done on bronze drums. (Fig. 77)

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 recent major discoveries

Fig.8. Only drum preserved after wild finds (Kampong Cham Museum)
Fig.8. Only drum preserved after wild finds (Kampong Cham Museum)

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.

  • First the burial site of a village named 10-8 was found by chance near Memot in Kampong Cham province during clay mining conducted by the Krek Rubber plantation. Archaeologists from Phnom-Penh arrived in 2001, finding only some remaining fragments of a small bronze drum during the survey of 56 burials belonging to the period between the 4th BCE and the 1st century BCE – numerous pieces had probably disappeared before their arrival. (Fig. 8) 
  • It was certainly the case with the cemetery of Bit Meas, in a rice field just 50 kilometers from 10-8, which was completely looted at the beginning of 2006. So many gold artefacts being found, the owner of the field sold the right to dig for 2.50 USD for each two square meters. A lot of what they called “bronze pots” were given for a few US dollars, along with gold earrings or precious beads before the arrival of the archaeologists.
  • The same story began in 2007 at Prohear, 8 kilometers north of Bit Meas, when clever students raised the alarm from Phnom Penh to Germany. The archaeological excavation with a Cambodian/German team began one year later but, in between it is estimated that “dozens of bronze drums, hundreds of ornaments made from gold and silver, and thousands of semi-precious stone beads were sold without any documentation” (Ministry of Culture). On the remaining section of this important site (20,000 square meters), meaning the 115 square meters not destroyed, only 52 burials were detected out of thousands in total, with hundreds of precious offerings: the richest site from the Bronze age in all Southeast Asia, first for the discoveries of gold and silver items. (See interview of Mrs Seng Sonetra below in Annex)

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:

  • on the tympanum a central ten rays “star” surrounded by one rank of stylized feathered people and one rank of six big fly- ing birds. Around, other concentric ranks with geometric designs and four traces of in relief frogs on the rim.
  • on the base (cylinder) few concentric ranks with only small geometric designs and four double handles.

“Why was Prohear so rich?” and “Who were its occupying people?”

Fig. 9. Prohear schema of the “lady drum” (burial 4, D45/H30 cm /courtesy)
Fig. 9. Prohear schema of the “lady drum” (burial 4, D45/H30 cm /courtesy)

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.


Other old bronze drums in Cambodia (non-exhaustive list)

Fig. 10. Stolen (smuggled) drum - (courtesy Heng Sophady)
Fig. 10. Stolen (smuggled) drum - (courtesy Heng Sophady)

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)

Fig. 11. Angkor Conservation drum (courtesy Heng Sophady)
Fig. 11. Angkor Conservation drum (courtesy Heng Sophady)

Eastern Provinces

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).

Fig. 12. Banteay Manchey museum drums (courtesy Heng Sophady)
Fig. 12. Banteay Manchey museum drums (courtesy Heng Sophady)
Fig. 13. Biggest drum found in Prek Krabau with his discoverer near “its” hole
Fig. 13. Biggest drum found in Prek Krabau with his discoverer near “its” hole

Fig. 14. Wild findings including drums protected by the police
Fig. 14. Wild findings including drums protected by the police

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.


Tentative interpretation of symbols on Cambodian drums

Epigraphic sources

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:

  • The spirals, so abundant on bronze drums, could refer to the shapes occurring in tornadoes or hurricanes or swirls of rivers’ currents, so numerous in Cambodia, as a symbol of a cosmic energy both creative and destructive of an invisible world.
  • The animals and plants figurations emerged from a totemic early era giving appropriate and corresponding names to people or natural forces. The Khmers are supposed to be descendant from the Nāga (serpent) and the trakuot (iguana) clans living in a sacred Tree island (Kos Kauk Thlauk) where fishes and frogs were playing an eminent role along with boats, so common on bronze drums but also in daily life if not to facilitate the access to other worlds.
  • The birds are particularly the object of a profound veneration, being part of a kind of cult of the soul from waters to the celestial airspace, their flights symbolizing the passage between worlds. From where, the “dance of the peacock” (Roam Kognauk) has survived, the feathers of a bird ornamenting the dancers present on bronze drums and may be helped by their profound sounds long time ago.
  • Elephant sculptures are sometimes added vertically on the Heger III drum’s cylinder, from Burma/Laos origins. Pachyderms are much respected in Cambodia and their meat prohibited; during droughts it was customary to ask them to imitate with their trunks the noise of thunder to call the gods for water-as drums were supposed to do.
  • Shells or other molluscs are embodying the sacred forces concentrated in the waters, securing fecundity, regeneration, and sexuality with reference to their likeness to the female vulva—all figurations seen on bronze drums
  • Cereals: grains, so common on bronze drums, express the sacred character of cereals and particularly of rice so vital for Cambodians. Magical or religious rituals were and remain performed all along the rice farming operations to preserve the natural cycles from demons.
  • Boats: Water festivals are still famous today in November (end of monsoon) to show gratitude to the Gods of water providing support for everything in agriculture. A boat has to be made in one tree, of 20, 30, up to 40 meters long, with nearly as many rowers resembling to some designs on the old bronze drums. Before building it, people would hold a traditional ceremony to ask permission to cut the tree and to invite her, essentially a female Goddess, to remain in that tree forever.
  • Gold and Silver, with traces sometimes mixed in the bronze drum components at the centre of the tympanum, are considered up to now as metallurgic emblems of cosmic energy. Costly, they testify also of the high social rank of their owner.
  • Stars and Sun: the cults of celestial bodies were always important in Cambodia, like in many old cultures, by reference to the seasonal rhythms so crucial in agriculture-as may be featured on the drum’s tympanum centre.

A Few Parting Thoughts

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.

Annex to Cambodia

Future vice-Dean Mrs Seng Sonetra during the Prohear excavation in 2008 /courtesy
Future vice-Dean Mrs Seng Sonetra during the Prohear excavation in 2008 /courtesy

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.”