The golden hour for reckoning.
Collectively, a tour de force
One word suffices for the gold, personal funerary articles found in archaeological sites in the Philippines.
Astonishingly, all—every single piece—of this grave jewelry is finely wrought. Each still exhibits delicacy and virtuosity, deftness of breath-driven gold melting and figuration, and confident form, 500 to 1000 years after their making. The collection of Leandro and Cecille Locsin on permanent public display at the Ayala Museum, and that of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, frees an exhalation: exquisite.
Collectors and archaeologists expect pure gold, or just microns short. The fineness of make, executed at the tiniest scale repoussé, granulation, filigree, metal sheet cut-out, gold weaving and chain-making, could not have been realized with alloys that harden the metal beyond what can be sculpted into elements measurable by millimeters. Beauty at this scale is self-evidently distant from monumentality.
Exquisite is also the word that brings art historian and casual museum visitor together in enchantment. One look fixes the certainty: this stuff belongs to the world’s sublime artworks. Completely outside nationalistic hubris, comparison with, say, Latin American Pre-Columbian gold jewelry convinces many: archaeological gold from Philippine sites are collectively a tour de force defining an aesthetics of delicacy. The former essays the large-scale. Pre-Columbian pieces speak of vast, hierarchical, centralized societies. Not the Philippine pieces, which suggest the opposite.
The jewelry were made, worn, and brought to the grave by people who are presumably ancestral to today’s Filipino. (Caveat: an atypical but nevertheless science-based position holds that at least the most spectacular pieces were made outside what is now the Philippines and traded into entrepôts like Butuan.) The finds buttress a kind of nationalism built on the desire to find and flaunt proof of civilization, as it is typically asserted, “before the arrival of the Spanish.” Certainly this beautiful old gold supports this civilizational narrative.
Yet these grave accouterments also seep out of this narrative. Archaeologists and anthropologists agree that neither cities, nor armies, nor kingdoms emerged in the archipelago. Those who define civilization as cities, armies, and centralized, exceedingly stratified social hierarchy will not accept the antecedents of today’s Filipinos as civilized. Without courts and aristocracies, how, then, to explain superlative artistry?
Among the Philippines’ culturati are those who solve this vexation by deciding that at least Butuan, and perhaps other river mouth settlements, were kingdoms of a sort. Might have been a city? But nay, science does not support this supposition.
Among the Philippines’ culturati, not exactly the same as above, are those who therefore think the articles cannot have been made by the Philippines’ primitive ancients. Even in Butuan or Samar or Batangas where many graves were dug, no high order society materialized from the dust—hence they think the wow stuff could only have been imported. Of course, this opinion could only have raised nationalist eyebrows.
Among the Philippines’ culturati are those who are really only enchanted by the aura of a golden, ghostlike past, never mind actual archaeological detailing. The ghost can be possessed, the archaeology a bit of a drag.
In Pilipino, paláisipán. Conundrums trailing after the jewelry.
Gouged eyes into the past
Scientists know enough about life before the annexation of this Pacific rim archipelago to a European empire in the 16th century. Looking to prehistory from the early 21st century, the image is informed by updated archaeological and anthropological work of increasing sophistication—which, furthermore, has been enhanced by genetics.
A good picture has emerged. Village centric communities led by the datu type of leader, with his female equivalent, the babaylán, were organized according to bilateral kinship. Variations to this basic shape are of course observed. (For example, female datus and male ritualists existed, and certainly ritualists thrived whose attributes were at once male and female.)
Gold, bulawan or gintô, was their ideal expressive substance. In all Philippine epics, pure gold—that which is dalisay—was a metonym for a human being of purity and therefore spiritual power. Dalisay ang pagkátao, purity of humanness. Gold told people what to do with it. Even today, gold is known in obscure Philippine places to speak to people about virtue.
In the time of the ancients, wrought gold was worn in remarkable quantities, each piece stunning, on almost all parts of nearly naked, tattooed, and befeathered bodies; some, with gold penis rings. They would have been quite the arresting visions of transcendent humans, emerging from triple canopy rainforests into deltas to meet traders and shadow marauders.
Across the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos (and not only where there were Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms), the ancients worked gold as though it were thin paper and indeed even thinner thread—executing cut-openwork, braiding, weaving, casting via cire perdu, and so forth—as an intimate part of life with things that, too, have life.
Careful scholars detect the relationship of gold with spiritual qualities of special humans, rather than class privilege.
In death, their mouths and eyes were overlaid with feather-light sheets of cut-out gold, reiterating the orifices. Entire face masks covered some. Impossible to simplistically think these merely baubles of the wealthy, the greater logic is to follow animist concepts of the decaying body and the malefic or beneficial forces needing barriers.
Unfortunately, the nature of this spirituality eludes analysts. The graves have not yielded as much detail as necessary for—in this case, literally—firm grounding.
Theft of knowledge
The detail has in large measure been erased by generations of grave robbers who have been active since the 1970s when these archaeological sites began to be exposed by urbanization and other reasons. The thieves outpace excavations by National Museum archaeologists.
The market for bits and pieces of this gold has been well established for decades. All actors—gold diggers, fences, runners, buyers, dealerships—work in the antiquities underground. The collectors are in touch with the hukay network. Like all illicit, clandestine trade everywhere in the world, it began with the whetted appetites of local collectors and consequently moved to feed global interest.
After what seemed intermittent delays and prolonged discussion, Republic Act 10006, the Omnibus Cultural Heritage Law was passed in 2010. Among its provisions is the outright criminalization of digging by any party other than the National Museum, in any site that promises a wealth of information, attending objects, from the Philippines’ deep past. Upon the passage of RA 10006, all gold articles and other grave furniture circulating in secretive markets—not acquired before 2010—are under the pall of suspicion of antiquities trafficking.
And it is, finally, that wealth of information that is being trashed in disturbed archaeological sites, as the gold and Chinaware are picked off, and skeletons and soils are left a chaotic raft. The graves are gouged earth surrendered to the elements.
Avarice at this systematic scale may not be uniquely Filipino—think only of the Daesh looting and fencing of Syrian and Kurdish antiquities to Western collectors. However, in the case of the Philippines, with its elusive culture that thrived for at least 4000 years without monumental art nor urban cultures, the loss is spectacular.
The true measure of that loss is the imminent amputation of Filipinos from the body of knowledge of their cultural genesis. How small scale societies, living sustainably for millenia, could make great art—what the gold is suggesting—will escape into oblivion. The gold jewelry appears to embody a way of being human that cultivated awe in the anima of ritually initiated things and beings. And in the anima of gold itself as a measure of human purity:
When such gold is mindlessly absorbed in the fashioning of new aristocracies through exhibitions of class exceptionalism, Filipinos squander their best selves. Especially if the horror of mindlessness is perpetrated by an unchecked contraband market.
Right now is the golden hour for reckoning the full meaning of loss of collective self.