PHILIPPINE PRE-COLONIAL GOLD

Photo: “Kinnari” (mystical half-bird, half-woman) gold vessel, Gold of Ancestors exhibit, Ayala Museum.

This is the reason why Spaniards went out to expand the limits of the known world in the 16th century. We all know the story from school, but it’s a totally different experience when the gold is literally in your face. This is breathtaking.

The 4th floor of the The Ayala Museum permanently houses a mind-boggling exhibit of just over 1,000 pre-colonial gold artifacts that show our historical and cultural links to neighboring Southeast Asian cultures. Items on display range from jewelry, decorative detailing for clothing and weapons to badges of rank, ceremonial vessels, as well as funerary and religious accessories. Quietly collected for 25 years by the family of National Artist Leandro Locsin, the items are considered part of national patrimony and had been kept under wraps until the creation of a secure and appropriate exhibit location. The collection was finally exhibited publicly upon the construction of the new Ayala Museum in 2004. The exhibit is curated by premier art historian Dr. Florina H. Capistrano-Baker.

Jessica Zafra tells us more in Newsweek here. My favorite blogger Marketman, who was invited to the opening, has some lovely pictures and more food for thought (pun intended) here.

We went to see the exhibit last July 23 with my mother’s friends UP Balik-Scientist Raul Suarez and his wife Pining. I was pleased to see a lot of students around; on their own, like most people, I don’t think it would occur to them to drop by the Ayala Museum just for fun. This isn’t something you hear about all the time on tv or the radio (I do however think it’s a great date place for myself and TDM. I want him to see it with me.)

The entrance to the exhibit is designed to look like a temple door but it’s outfitted like a bank vault security gate that opens every 30 minutes. When you see the gate slide down you get the feeling you’ve entered a time-travelling space ship. Some tourists tried to get out the way they came, but apparently the security is such that you can’t get out the way you came in. You have to go where the end of the exhibit leads you, and there are sensors that slide another gate upwards to let you out from there. You can’t get in from the outside that way, either. Which is great, because a collection this stunning and awe-inspiring can teach us a lot of things about who we are as a people. To lose that would be a tragedy.

We sat ourselves in front of a curved cinema screen where a well-produced video told the story of Philippine gold from the geological formation of the archipelago up to just before Spanish colonization. The photos from the Boxer Codex of Filipinos in native garb sporting gold earrings and other displays of wealth and rank were familiar from school readings. You could tell who the rich individuals were from their distended earlobes — only those who could afford it wore earrings, and gold was naturally heavy. Walking around I could actually see a number of items I would love to wear, if only I didn’t need a motorized wheelchair to transport myself around with while wearing them! (In the first place I don’t know a lot of people who could even afford the motorized wheelchair.)

The crowning glory of this exhibit was a magnificent chain link halter for some chieftain that I think once held a ceremonial scabbard (the missing bit that connected to some torn-off gold wire where the halter ends at the hip). FOUR kilos of gold chain link. Four KILOS of fine, fine, FINE work.

The amount of detail in such artifacts reflects superb, painstaking craftsmanship of incredible sophistication. You’d appreciate this in the varied styles and techniques used — gold foil, filigree, chain-linking, others. The jeweller-historian Ramon Villegas’s Ginto: History Wrought in Gold could enlighten us further (we own a copy of his 1983 book Kayamanan: Philippine Jewelry Tradition). Wish I could afford one. New York-based Filipiniana blogger Pu-pu Platter shares beautiful photos on Flickr. I would dearly love for regular folks to enjoy the photographs of the collection on top of the intriguing story of the discovery, how the Locsins funded the archaeological dig and how they decided for it to be accessible to the ordinary Filipino in this way. It deserves its own National Geographic cover story.

Luckily for us folks with internet access, The Probe Team covered “The Surigao Treasure” and aired it just last June 8, 2008. There’s a good (but short) article accompanying the documentary. They showed it a day later as ABS-CBN’s Independence Day Special “Gintong Pamana” which I’m pleased to find it on YouTube. I missed both showings, but thanks to online links, I got intrigued again and want to return to the Ayala Museum. Or read the bibliography suggested by Pu-pu Platter in his May 4th comment to Marketman’s post. (Funny how, when you’re not required to read something, finally reading it becomes so delicious because you’re just plain CURIOUS.)

Then there’s that gold foil document inscribed with ancient Tagalog/Sanskrit whose significance (at least to us) would approach that of the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls. It tells of a wealthy man who owed a debt of 900gms worth of gold and thus became a slave because he couldn’t repay his debt. What a great story — that could be made into either a novel or a movie.

But my favorite piece of all is that golden vessel shaped into a Kinnari, a mystical bird-woman that Hindu-Southeast Asian culture refers to as the epitome of grace and beauty. Graceful and beautiful the artifact was, indeed. You can see the very delicate facial expression in the photo above, and the exquisite feather detailing around the vessel, which I imagine held perfumed oil. It is displayed as found, slightly squashed (gold being very soft it couldn’t have kept its shape under soil), but that doesn’t diminish its very fabulousness.

I’m going back. (You can come along, and see it for only Php 225 for the entrance ticket. Bring an id, because they ask for one. I know, it’s the price of a restaurant entree. But it’s a special, special exhibit. It’s worth it. Make it a date. Impress your significant someone. Or teach yourself something new. Today’s a great day to consider it.)

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4 thoughts on “PHILIPPINE PRE-COLONIAL GOLD

  1. Sorry, but excuse me. I want to point out some errors in your post.

    “Then there’s that gold foil document inscribed with ancient Tagalog/Sanskrit whose significance (at least to us) would approach that of the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls. It tells of a wealthy man who owed a debt of 900gms worth of gold and thus became a slave because he couldn’t repay his debt.”

    It wasn’t a gold foil, it was a copper plate. The artifact is now known as the Laguna Copperplate Inscription. It was found near Laguna de Bay.

    And the script wasn’t in Sanskrit. Those who have studied the inscription says it is probably a mix of Old Javanese and Old Tagalog.

    That’s all. ^_^

    • No need to be sorry, Johanna. I was writing as someone who just appreciated the exhibit, not as a scholar. I’m glad you pointed this out, as I didn’t really know too much about the document as an individual item. The story in it the Laguna Copperplate was fascinating, and I think that’s mostly what I remembered. Thanks for visiting :)

  2. One sad mystery is that when the Spaniards reached the Manila Bay region, they found the inhabitants literate in the scripts we now call baybayin, but no one had any memory of the kawi script on the LCI nor of the society that produced it. Such forgetfulness is by no means unusual. It happened all over the world. When the Romans arrived in Britain, they thought that Stonehenge and other megaliths there had been built by the Celtic Druids. The Celts themselves had no idea who raised the giant stones and ascribed the feat to giants. But it makes you wonder what groundbreaking events occurred in the five hundred years between the time the LCI was written and the arrival of the West in our country. Whoever wrote the LCI came from a wealthy, worldy-wise and no doubt regionally well-connected polity that seems to have been more sophisticated and urbane than what the Conquistadores chanced upon.

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