Victor Goloubew and the Disappearance of the Indonesien Creators of the Bronze Drums

In 1929, Victor Goloubew, a Russian-born scholar who worked for the French École française d’Extrême-Orient, publshed an article in which he examined some of the materials that had been found by Louis Pajot in his excavations at Đông Sơn.

At that time, it was still not clear to scholars who had originally made the bronze drums. Hirth had argued that they had been created by the Chinese during their expeditions against savages (man 蠻) in the south in the first century CE, whereas De Groot had contended that the bronze drums were created by those very people whom the Chinese had campaigned against.

In his article, Goloubew more or less finds a middle ground between these two theories and argues that the bronze drums were first created in the area of what is today north and north-central Vietnam, but that it was the Chinese who taught the people of this “primitive civilization” how to work with metals.


In addition to arguing where and when the bronze drums were first made, Goloubew also makes statements about the cultural world of the people who made them. Goloubew contends that the first people to make bronze drums were “Indonesiens.”

He determines this by comparing some of the artifacts that Pajot had unearthed and images on a bronze drum that was held at the École française d’Extrême-Orient’s museum in Hanoi, the famous Ngọc Lư bronze drum that had been found in Hà Nam Province in 1903, with ethnographic information about the Dayak in Borneo and the Moi in the Central Highlands.

From these comparisons, Goloubew determines that the creators of the bronze drums shared certain common cultural practices with these Indonesien peoples, and that they therefore must have been Indonesien as well.


On the Ngọc Lư bronze drum, for instance, Goloubew finds a reed instrument similar to the khene played by Lao peoples. However, he argues that the instrument more closely resembles the Dayak keluri, which is also similar in form to a reed instrument played by the Moi.

Daggers found by Pajot likewise resemble daggers used by the Dayak. Another connection with the Dayak is the hairstyle of the people depicted on the Ngọc Lư bronze drum, which Goloubew argues consists of having some hair tied up in a bun, and using a band around the head which hangs down in the back.

Goloubew also suggests that the images of birds on the Ngọc Lư bronze drum might indicate some totemic belief which these peoples upheld.

Finally, Goloubew goes on to discuss at some length the parallels he sees between boat images on the Ngọc Lư bronze drum with the Dayak death ritual known as tiwah in which the dead are symbolically transported by boat to the afterlife.


Goloubew thus concludes that the Ngọc Lư bronze drum represents a primitive civilization, some traces of which can still be found among the Dayak of Borneo. Such a conclusion, he argues, is not surprising given that H. Kern had demonstrated in 1917 the close relations between Malayo-Polonesians and some of the races in Indochina, while in 1925 Henri Mansuy and Madeline Colani had revealed that they had found Indonesien skulls in Ninh Bình and Hòa Bình provinces.

Nonetheless, Goloubew does still find it mysterious that the Indonesien creators of the bronze drums had seemingly disappeared. He surmises that some of them may have been absorbed into the Muong or Cham populations, whereas others, he speculates, had likely set sail in their boats carrying their totemic figures, either out of necessity or a sense of adventure, to conquer and settle new lands.

[Victor Goloubew, “L’Âge du Bronze au Tonkin et dans le Nord-Annam” [The Bronze Age in Tonkin and Northern Annam], Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 29 (1929): 1-46.]

4 thoughts on “Victor Goloubew and the Disappearance of the Indonesien Creators of the Bronze Drums

  1. Once I had a short conversation with a French or Belgian man who was a dealer in what is sometimes called tribal art, I think what was once called primitive art. He had spent considerable time among ethnic minorities in Indonesia, had lived among them and learned some of their languages. At some point he had had the opportunity to visit Vietnam’s Central Highlands / Tây Nguyên. He immediately recognized the same kind of architecture and even found that he could speak with them using the skills he acquired in Indonesia. That got me wondering whether it was possible that there had been some epoch when Malay / Indonesian peoples had been dominant throughout mainland and island Southeast Asia – and maybe had an influence further afield. This is speculation on my part, and definitely a subject of which I only have superficial and cursory knowledge. A. M. Jones wrote a book comparing the organology and tunings of Indonesian and African xylophones ( In one of his books, Mantle Hood considers the origins of Indonesia gamelan music in the wider context of the bronze drums found in southeast Asia and South China. Of course the gongs (cồng chiêng) of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands and in the mountains of the north fall within this system of instruments (by the way the Mường also use such gongs). This is an fascinating subject that I wish I knew more about — the possible presence of a dominant proto-Malayan / Indonesian culture with contacts throughout the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia / Philippines. There are definitely musical connections that are still present. One of the evident connections is the use of an equal tempered 7 note scale that is prevalent in Africa is the same tuning that Thai instruments use, and Lê Tuấn Hùng has shown that it underlies the pentatonic scale system used in nhạc tài tử of Vietnam’s central and southern region (and is also used in Tây Nguyên music). It’s interesting speculation.

    1. In some ways this topic has already been documented: Wilhelm Solheim, the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network (NMTCN).

      But in other ways, it hasn’t.

      Solheim has argued that starting in the Neolithic, trade helped create a common cultural zone across much of Southeast Asia.

      That’s good, but what I would like to see is that idea taken further through time.

      If you read a book like Anthony Reid’s “Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce,” where he tries to provide evidence that helps us “define” Southeast Asia, you will see that he makes reference to Malays, Thai, Batak, Dayak, Viet, etc.

      To me, these peoples are not the same.

      Now we don’t want to create a history that is totally unidirectional and which assumes that everyone passes through certain stages, but I do think that there was something common say in the first millennium BC (and Solheim helps with this).

      Then I think we can identify a common “Early Sanskriticization” moment where things like the use of some Sanskrit, Tantric Buddhism, and Indian occult knowledge became part of the cultural matrix of the elite in certain places (and this is where it gets dangerous because I don’t want to imply that some people are “stuck in time,” but I do think that the Batak provide an image of what that cultural matrix was like).

      Then after that you get the more total transformation of elite in different places as “Theravada Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Hinduism,” and “Islam” get more fully employed at first by elites, but then that over time affects common people too.

      People like the Thai, Burmans, Viet and Malay “emerge” or “form” in this late stage, and their identity forms through their interaction with these “big ideas.” And in the case of the Burmans and the Thai, migration also plays a role in their formation.

      So I don’t put the Thai, Burmans, Viet and Malay in the same category as the Batak, Dayak, Bahnar, etc. It’s not right to say that the Batak, Dayak and Bahnar are more “primitive,” which is of course what colonial-era scholars said. But if we are going to talk about something that is fundamentally “Southeast Asian,” I do think that people like the Batak, Dayak and Bahnar represent it much more than the Thai, Burmans, Viet and Malay do.

      The Thai, Burmans, Viet and Malay all formed in opposition to “real Southeast Asians.”

      I also need to research this more, and I need to find a way to say this that doesn’t fall back into the trap of viewing history as the progress from the primitive to the civilized, but there is a lot there which I think people haven’t really talked about much yet.

  2. I wonder if it’s useful to think of the surviving cultural manifestations of various times (including the present) all as products of some sort of elite culture. And that the elite culture could have been transmitted through certain kinds of channels that were dominant at the time (either through conquest, commerce or religious movements). In some areas the cultural manifestations were overlayed or replaced by other elite cultures that came to be respected, adored or adopted at later times. A given ethnic, linguistic or political group could be the agent that introduces the cultural manifestation but they do not necessarily do anything to change the social, cultural and political self-identity of the people who take up this cultural manifestation (to whatever extent this self-identity existed). This is rather abstract, but I think that it would only assert is that there might be historic periods when certain ways of thinking were popular and in motion, but not infer anything about the cultural level of the people adopting novel ways of thinking (and possibly retain them up to the present as other communities move to adopt more recent (and maybe even more efficacious) novel ways of thinking or doing things).

    I imagine that somebody has already thought this all out and come up with a nice theory for it.

    1. So in terms of Southeast Asia, these are the kind of ideas that the field was built on in the 1960s-1980s (especially the work of O. W. Wolters), but they haven’t been seriously revisited since.

      Yea, I think Wolters more or less said what you are saying here (please correct me if you are coming at it from a different angle), but he would have said that (and Paul Mus said this much earlier) that people already had certain ideas about how to organize society, and that Indian ideas were added to that, and became “a think flaking glaze” (van Leur) over an existing core set of ideas.

      The issue though, as I see it, is that those outside ideas were ultimately transformative. Wolters does kind of admit this too (his writing is really opaque), but I think it’s transformative to the point where people who adopt those ideas use them to reject the ways of others, and that is something that I don’t think people have paid attention to. Nothing negative happens in Southeast Asia in the writings of people like Wolters. No one “rejects” anyone else.

      The other issue that I think hasn’t been dealt with clearly is how those initially elite cultural and linguistic practices spread to common people. I like this guy’s ideas:
      Richard A. O’Conner: “Agricultural Change and Ethnic Succession in Southeast Asian States: A Case for Regional Anthropology,” Journal of Asian Studies 54.4 (1995): 968-996.
      And I’ve mentioned them here before:

      Rather than seeing ethnic groups with more-or-less unified cultures who adopted ideas from outsiders and “localized” them (this is, I think, more or less what people like Wolters say), Conner talks about “agro-cultural complexes” (a mixture of technological and ritual practices and the language of an elite who overseas and taxes the people who are part of their world) that over time incorporated more people and made them more homogenous through their participation in the agro-cultural complex, eventually resulting in the formation of ethnic groups with more-or-less unified cultures.

      In such a situation, I think the elite initially position themselves in opposition to commoners, and “foreign” ritual practices/languages/ideas are all used to maintain a sense of separateness, but gradually over time some of that stuff spreads to the common people through their participation in the agro-cultural complex.

      Now the people who we think of as having “not changed” much – the Batak, the Dayak, etc. are all peoples who, for various reasons, did not end up creating or participating in a large agro-cultural complex. So they’re not “stuck in time,” but instead, they developed along a different path, and created cohesion in different ways.

      I think I’m drifting here. . . the morning coffee is starting to kick in. I’ll stop here.

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