Situla with Design of Boats

Period: Bronze and Iron Age period, Dongson culture

Date: ca. 500 B.C.–A.D. 300

Culture: Vietnam

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: H. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm)

Classification: Metalwork

Credit Line: Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Bequest of Samuel Eilenberg, 1998

Accession Number: 2000.284.60


Thinly cast, this crisply formed, bucket-shaped vessel, possibly derived from a wooden prototype, has two semicircular loop handles attached to the sides with crossbars. Lines in low relief divide the surface into horizontal bands. In the smaller registers at the top and bottom, hatching, trellis, and chain-link patterns are found. The larger central band carries a depiction of four long boats with curving prows and sterns, with an aquatic bird occupying the spaces between two of the boats. Warriors wearing prominent feathered headdresses are seated in the boats. There has been much speculation about the meaning of the imagery of boats, warriors, and birds, a combination also often represented on drums and other items produced by the Dongson culture. They have been interpreted as representations of military or imperial processions and as symbols of shamanism or a soul's journey to the afterlife.

Situlae, sometimes filled with bronze and stone implements, have been found in burials in both Vietnam and South China. An important group of nine situlae was excavated in 1983 from the tomb of the Chinese leader Zhao Mo (r. 137–122 B.C.), who briefly ruled parts of present-day Guangzhou and northern Vietnam as the "king of Nanyue." Nan means south, yue refers in early Chinese histories to the peoples who inhabited parts of southern China. Three of the situlae were found nestled inside one another; two show the stylized warriors and boats seen on this example. Buckets with similar shapes and motifs are also found in graves datable from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D., in Guangxi and Yunnan provinces.