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Finding the Metal Age in San Remigio

/ 10:12 AM April 07, 2011

The media reports, both on TV Patrol as well as this and other newspapers this week, have whipped up a kind of mini-storm in San Remigio, much like the gusts of wind underneath the ABS-CBN helicopter that brought my friend and archaeology supporter Rico Lucena to our excavation site the other day.

I am now swamped with all kinds of questions about the four burials, the five or six different-sized potteries and the four iron daggers and spearheads that we have recovered so far. A steady flow of people from the town as well as nearby Bogo City have trickled to our excavation site behind the parish church asking all kinds of questions, some bordering on the ignorant (“Are these humans?”) to the more informed (“How old are these burials?” “Who buried them?” “Are these our ancestors?”). Let me therefore spend time in this column to explain our hypothesis about what we have found here.

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What is the age of these burials?

The burials are most probably of the Iron Age or what is formally known as the Philippine Metal Age, roughly dated to between 500 BCE (or BC) and 900 CE (or AD). The absence of Chinese or any other Asian tradeware ceramics (porcelain and stoneware) as well as gold ornaments and glass beads are indicative of this period, which is way before the time when our ancestors began bartering our gold, cotton, rice, etc. for porcelain and other ceramics from China, Vietnam, and Thailand. It was probably the Chinese and Arab traders, who started arriving around 900-1200 CE and who influenced our ancestors to think that gold is precious and can be worn as jewelry. Before this, gold was present in our rivers but our ancestors probably barely took notice of this or did not see this as an important personal or funerary object.

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Another important evidence of the period is the presence of earthenware ceramics of two kinds: one for ritual (or perhaps funerary purposes), the other for use in domestic life. The ritual pots are usually present in burials and show no sign of having been used for cooking (no soot left on the bottom, mouths are too narrow to be able to cook “inun-unan” or “utan kamunggay” with ease). Sometimes they carry incised decoration on the neck and body in the form of chevrons, ropes, shell tips or just plain zigzag lines.

Oftentimes it is the shape and form that helps to relate the pottery to other existing sites that have long been determined to date to this period. The most important of these is the Kalanay Pottery Complex, a set of earthenware pottery shapes and forms derived largely from excavations of the Kalanay Cave in Masbate by Dr. Wilhelm Solheim II in the 1950s. Solheim’s systematic excavation and subsequent publication of the hitherto unlooted cave yielded a typology of different sets of earthenware potteries that are still used by archaeologists today to compare their own with the ones he found. This is where we are most certain of the similarity between the potteries in San Remigio and those of the Kalanay Caves.

It is important to note that Solheim pushes the Philippine Metal Age further to 1,000 BCE and refers to the Philippine Metal Age as the Philippine Iron Age. H. Otley Beyer, known as the Father of Philippine Anthropology, however, calls it the Philippine Metal Age because of the presence of bronze in some burial sites of the period, hence the term “metal” in lieu of “iron.”

Indeed, in other sites in the country, bronze tools have been recovered but there has never really been any tin and copper mining in Philippine prehistory, whereas iron was mined and smelted into tools. The suspicion is that these bronzes were recycled out of outworn or broken bronze gongs brought in from Vietnam towards the latter part of the Metal Age.

One final point I wish to make is that only absolute dating techniques will provide certainty about the age of the burials we have recovered. And for this, we await the arrival of the team from the University of Guam, who will excavate jointly with the University of San Carlos (USC) at the same site from June 4 to 24. It is through them that a bone sample can be radiocarbon dated in the United States for this purpose. The costs is quite prohibitive at $2,000 per sample. Some of the soil we have also kept for sampling purposes are also awaiting funding support.

Please be a “fan” on our Facebook community page (The 2011 USC Archaeological Fieldwork in San Remigio, Cebu) and our blog (sanremarchaeo.blogspot.com) for more details about our excavations and the finds we are recovering every day.

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