Looking Back

Living in a golden age

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We all hope the impeachment trial wraps up soon after the Chief Justice takes the stand on Tuesday so we can move on to the next scandal. The Corona trial, despite its entertaining moments, is getting to be as long as a telenovela that should have been limited to one season. For many Filipinos, multiple dollar and peso accounts, high-end real estate, and eight-figure net worth are beyond imagination. How would those figures translate into physical P1,000 bills of the new generation Philippine currency? To help people visualize all that, one needs to visit the Ayala Museum and take in the stunning exhibit of excavated gold artifacts dating way back to pre-Spanish times.

As many as 1,059 objects were estimated to have been made and used in the Philippines from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Our ancestors used them all, from small gold studs to adorn their clothes, gold masks to cover the faces of their dead, leaf-shaped ornaments to cover a woman’s privates, to gold implements to keep men’s privates rigid and useful. One gets the impression that some of our ancestors glittered like Christmas trees, the eternal yellow matter contrasting with their jet-black hair and bronze skin: earrings, necklaces, armlets, leglets, rings for each of the 10 fingers, and even the toes. All these expressed social prestige, economic and political power, belief in life after death, and our ancestors’ notions of art and beauty.

“The show you waited a thousand years to see!”—as the Ayala Museum exclaims—is arranged around other exhibits and rooms under the theme “Crossroads of Civilization.” I revisit the exhibit at least twice a year, each time seeing something new that escaped me before. Pre-Spanish gold is mentioned in our textbooks and one does have to see it to appreciate legends like the barter of Panay, where the payment was made in a gold (or golden?) salakot. It is also good to remember that the Philippines used to be among the top 10 gold-producing countries in the world, leading us to ask: How come the country today seems so poor?

Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of the Magellan expedition, wrote that gold was so abundant in the Philippines that one just had to sift the sand one walked on to find gold pieces the size of walnuts. Everyone knows that gold has to be dug off the earth or patiently sifted in pans by people who live along the gold routes in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, after which it goes through a refining process. When Magellan’s men picked up gold from the ground in 1521, were they actually raiding graves of the gold “pabaon” buried with the beloved dead?

The gold artifacts in the Ayala Museum also suggest a sophisticated gold industry that flourished as early as the 10th century in some parts of the country, like Butuan and Surigao, where much of the artifacts were accidentally found in the 1980s. The intricate designs and extraordinary craftsmanship are something unseen in almost a millennium.

When these gold artifacts were first brought to light, people were guessing how these were originally worn, and we are fortunate that sometime after World War II, a 16th-century manuscript on the Philippines turned up at an auction and was acquired by the historian C. R. Boxer under whose name it is known today as the “Boxer Codex.” The original is now preserved in the Lilly Library, University of Indiana at Bloomington, that has recently made the wonderful illustrations available online. These illustrations of the inhabitants of the Philippines, China, Japan, etc. in the 16th century give us a window into the past. Without the text and pictures in the Boxer Codex and other contemporary manuscripts, the Ayala Museum display would be a guessing game.

For example, the Boxer Codex describes Tagalog men who “wear many golden chains around the neck, especially if they are chiefs, because these are what they value most, and there are some who wear more than 10 or 12 of these chains…”

Also: “The women carry much gold jewelry because they are richer than the Bisayans. Men and women also wear many bracelets and chains of gold on the arms. They are not used to wearing them on the legs. Women likewise carry around the neck golden chains that men do…”

Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” (Events of the Philippine Islands), first published in Mexico in 1609 and annotated by Rizal in 1890, described the jewelry of the inhabitants of Luzon thus: “…chains of gold wound round the neck, worked like spun wax and with links in our fashion, some larger than others, bracelets on the arms which they call calombigas, made of gold very thick and of different patterns, and some with strings of stones, carnelians and agates and others of blue and white stones which are much esteemed among them.”

I require my students to visit the museum and am amused when they tell me later that they knew the Ayala Malls so well and never knew there was a museum at the edge of the shopping strip. Some have even been to the Museum Café but were not moved to even check out the exhibits next door. In the lull between the conclusion of the Corona impeachment trial and the next big scandal, I recommend that you escape the unbearable summer heat or save on shopping money by visiting the Ayala Museum “Gold of Our Ancestors” exhibit, if only to know that sometime in the distant past our ancestors literally lived in a golden age.

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