An ancient stringed musical instrument crafted from deer antler in southern Vietnam has been brought back to life thanks to a team of archaeologists. 

Lead researcher and PhD student Fredeliza Campos from The Australian National University (ANU) said the artefact is at least 2,000 years old – dating from Vietnam’s pre-Óc Eo culture along the Mekong River. 

Reconstruction (A), compared with examples of Vietnamese musical instruments. Illustration and photos: Fredeliza Campos

“This stringed instrument, or chordophone, is one of the earliest examples of this type of instrument in Southeast Asia,” Ms Campos said. 

“It fills the gap between the region’s earliest known musical instruments – lithophones or stone percussion plates – and more modern instruments.  

“It would’ve been around 35cm long and had a hole at one end for a peg, which would’ve been important for tuning. It also had what looks like a bridge to support the string. 

“No other explanation for its use makes sense.” 

Two of the artefacts uncovered in Vietnam. Photo: Fredeliza Campos and Jennifer Hull

Ms Campos and her collaborators, Vương Thu Hồng from Long An Museum in Vietnam and Jennifer Hull, from ANU, analysed more than 600 bone artefacts. 

 “We could not find anything remotely similar, both in size and how the deer antler has been shaped,” Ms Hull said.  

“This also suggest that the artefacts were made by specialists who are probably musicians themselves.” 

The artefacts were found at the archaeological site of Gò Ô Chùa, in Long An province, Southern Vietnam. Three identical bronze bells which were most likely part of a burial were also found. 

“It is clearly established that music played an important role in the early cultures of this region. The striking similarities between the artefacts we studied and some stringed instruments that are still being played suggest that traditional Vietnamese music has its origins in the prehistoric past,” Ms Campos said. 

It is unclear how the instrument might have been played, or exactly what sound it might have made, but Ms Campos believes the methods might have been similar to contemporary Vietnamese musical instruments such as the K’ný.  

“The K’ný is a single string bowed instrument that is uniquely controlled by the player’s mouth, which also acts as a resonator. It can play a wide variety of sounds and tones, much more than a chromatic scale you often hear on a piano,” Ms Campos said. 

A depiction of how the instrument may have been played. Illustration: Fredeliza Campos

The likely source of the antler used to craft the instrument is the Sambar deer of the Indian hog deer, native to mainland Southeast Asia.  

The research has been published in Antiquity

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