Vietnamese stringed instrument

What is it?

Photo: F Z Campos

This object, thought to be at least 2,000 years old, is believed to be a stringed musical instrument. The artefact is made from a single piece of deer antler and is c.353mm long, with a diameter of 12.96mm, and a maximum breadth of 25.31mm. The antler has been worked to produce a uniform, elongated shape with a smooth surface. The burr near the base of the antler has been shaped into a ‘bridge’ bearing a small notch with extensive wear possibly caused by a string, which was probably wound around an hourglass-shaped groove at the other end of the object. A hole, 3.31mm in diameter, has been drilled near this groove, perhaps to hold a peg for tuning the instrument.

Where was it found, and when?

The object was discovered at Gò Ô Chùa, in Long An province, southern Vietnam: a settlement and burial site in use in Vietnam’s early Metal Age, during the pre-Óc Eo and Óc Eo phases (c.3,000-1,250 years ago). The site, which is defined by three large mounds, was the subject of several archaeological investigations between 1997 and 2008. This artefact was discovered in 1997 in the central mound, and further excavations of the same mound in 2008 uncovered a second object believed to be part of the same sort of instrument, although that example consisted of just an end fragment. A newly published study has analysed both objects in more detail.

Why does it matter?

The recent analysis compared the antler artefact to examples of modern stringed instruments used in Vietnam today and confirmed that it is most likely an example of a similar instrument. The worn notch on the bridge and the hole for a single peg suggests that it was a type of single-string instrument known as a chordophone, or an early form of monochord. The instrument’s manufacture reflects a considerable level of skill, suggesting that in addition to being accomplished craftspeople, its creators may have had an understanding of music themselves.

Direct dating of the object is not possible, but due to its archaeological context it is estimated to be at least 2,000 years old, dating it to the pre-Óc Eo phase. Information about prehistoric musical instruments in South-east Asia is very limited due to preservation issues. Most surviving examples are made of stone or metal, and the earliest known musical instruments from Vietnam are stone percussion plates known as lithophones, which were used like xylophones and date to c.3000 years ago. The discovery of the earliest chordophone known in South-east Asia offers an important opportunity to fill in the gap between lithophones and modern instruments, while its similarity to instruments still in use today points to a previously unrecognised degree of continuity in some of the region’s musical traditions, perhaps stretching back as many as 2,000 years.

The research was published in Antiquity (
The artefact is kept in Long An Museum, and will be placed on display once the renovation work currently taking place at the museum has been completed.