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Our Global Neighbours: Frog Drum

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 20 Jan 2016

Symbol of fertility, harbinger of rain and wellbeing.

Frog Drum E75462 AA

Frog Drum E75462 AA
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Frogs indicate wholesome environment – a source of human wellbeing. Their actual and metaphorical role in our life and culture was cherished for millennia. It is believed that the frog drums in Southeast Asia were used to call rain to ensure a bountiful crop.

Frog drums are a special category of bronze drums - instruments frequently used by indigenous people who inhabit Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. As a result of devastating wars in Indochina (old term for mainland Southeast Asia) and especially Vietnam, many frog drums were sold to foreign collectors in the 1970s.

A respectable family of Karen and Khmu people in northern Laos would own a frog drum or even two. The drums were ritual and sacred objects, used in ceremonies as the instruments and also focus for offerings. According to some accounts drums embodied ancestral spirits but also implied authority and wealth.

Jewellery, special ceremonial items or even rice grains for the next planting season were stored in the drum, which sometimes was secretly hidden buried underground near the home for safety. The drum would be inherited by the son and sometimes placed in a burial with the owner, either symbolically or just a fragment. In such case a handle, a frog or a section of the base would be cut and sacrificed for a funeral.

Our drum represents type III (in still used Frantz Heger’s classification of 1902), also called the Karen type. The ‘star’ on the tympan has twelve rays. On the tympan’s rim are four pairs of frogs, each carrying a partner on its back as if captured in the act of procreation. The tympan and body are decorated with stylized ornaments and there are two pairs of small handles.

This drum was purchased in the 1970s from a villager in Vientiane district. A chunk of a body from the base was cut off and presumably buried with its previous owner. The missing section was eventually reconstructed, although without the decoration present in the original drum. This repair confirms the custom of drums’ partial burial and neatly indicates its authenticity.

Additional information:

Frog drum’s origin is often linked to the Ðông Son Culture of ancient North Vietnam and South China, which flourished in the first millennium BC and up to about 300 AD. This culture propagated use of metal and bronze casting through the region. It is estimated that frog drums appeared in the first few centuries of the Common Era, spread through Southeast Asia, and continued to be made (for traditional use) into the first half of the 20th century.

BC (or BCE) – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BC Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life. AD indicates Common Era (counted from year 1 to present).