Upon seeing the burial jars, I had to take a deep breath. I had to keep the tears from flowing.
I was in the University of San Carlos (USC) Museum in Cebu City, and the burial jars I had come to see were taken half a century ago from Kulaman Plateau, my hometown in Mindanao. For several weeks before the visit, I spent hours almost every day doing research online on the archaeological artifacts. By scouring websites and poring over downloadable academic papers, I felt that I had been a witness to the journey of the burial jars—how they were discovered in the caves and rock shelters in our town and ended up in museums in the Visayas, Luzon, and even as far away as the United States.
Seeing the jars for the first time, running my fingers along their vertical ridges, staring straight at the hollow eyes of their anthropomorphic covers, I felt reunited with long-lost loved ones. I had reached a major point in my search for identity. I had found a missing part of me.
The burial jars of Kulaman Plateau are unique in that they are carved out of limestone; in contrast, most ancient jars found in other areas of the Philippines are made of clay. The Dulangan Manobo, the original inhabitants of Kulaman Plateau, used the jars during the late Neolithic (or Early Iron) Age to store the bones of their departed family members. In the analysis of human bones found in one of the jars, the collagen yielded a radiocarbon date of 585 AD, plus or minus 85 years.
I learned about the limestone jars only this year, when a cousin asked for help for her graduate-studies research on the Dulangan Manobo. Browsing the web, I was surprised to find that my hometown had once been home to priceless archaeological artifacts. Before then, Kulaman Plateau to me was nothing more than a dreary, poverty-stricken settlement atop the mountains of Sultan Kudarat. I also had an impression that the Manobo of my province do not have a rich culture since they appear to be the least documented among the indigenous tribes of Mindanao. I was only too glad to discover Kulaman Plateau’s significant contribution to Philippine, and even Southeast Asian, studies.
It seems, however, that I learned about the limestone jars decades too late. Our local government does not operate a museum and does not have a single burial jar in its possession. Most Dulangan Manobo now have adopted the practice of Christian settlers of burying the dead in the ground, so they no longer make use of secondary burial urns. If some Manobo families still keep urns, they are probably hiding them in caves that are difficult to access. (Considering the topography of Kulaman Plateau, it probably has more than a hundred caves.) Therefore, residents of the plateau like me who want to see limestone burial jars have to travel for at least 300 miles and visit a museum.
I learned to my chagrin that I could have seen the burial jars earlier had I been aware of their existence. I had worked in Cebu for nearly two years, and on my stay there, I had passed the USC campus several times. I also visited the National Museum in Manila last year. I spent several minutes gazing at the Manunggul Jar and the anthropomorphic pottery from Maitum, Sarangani, but I didn’t notice any limestone jars from Kulaman Plateau which, according to some websites, were on display in the same room. So when I was accepted as a fellow at a writing workshop in Cebu last November, I promised myself that I would visit USC and see the jars.
USC was the first institution to have conducted formal research on the limestone burial jars, in late 1962. The research team, led by Marcelino Maceda, excavated two caves in Menteng, a hamlet within Kulaman Plateau, which was then a part of the municipality of Kalamansig. In 1989, Kulaman Plateau became the seat of government of the newly created municipality of Senator Ninoy Aquino. Before the formal study of USC, however, a couple of limestone jars found their way to the museum of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in 1954. But UST, or at least its website, does not expressly label the burial jars in its collection as finds from Kulaman Plateau.
The second exploration in Kulaman Plateau was conducted in 1966 by Samuel Briones of Silliman University in Dumaguete. Briones discovered limestone jars and earthenware vessels in cave sites and rock shelters in Salangsang (still part of Kulaman Plateau but technically a village of the municipality of Lebak). Soon after, Edward B. Kurjack of Miami University and Craig T. Sheldon of the University of Oregon did further research on the jars. They worked in cooperation with Silliman and explored Salangsang in 1967 and 1968.
The artifacts from Salangsang are now on display at the museum in the Silliman campus. A few of them are in Ayala Museum in Makati. Another non-academe museum that has Kulaman jars in its collection is that of Richard Gervais in California in the United States. According to the website of the private museum, its owner bought the jars in the 1960s while traveling in Mindanao. Gervais was able to acquire one fragment and eight burial jars, two of which have been sold to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. He is now selling the fragment for $350 and the six remaining jars for amounts ranging from $2,500 to $4,000.
It is sad that the jars were taken away from their original sites, even if the institutions involved have done so much in preserving them and informing the public of their significance. It is despicable that some of the jars are blatantly put on sale online as though they were limited-edition action figures or used laptops. Nobody should put a price tag on archaeological artifacts; they are invaluable treasures of a tribe, a locality and even a nation.
If I had the money, I would buy all the burial jars now on display in California and take them back to my hometown. Unfortunately, all I can afford to do is see the ones that are in museums in the country. I’ve ticked off one destination in my list, and there are a few more to go.
Whichever museum I will visit, however, I have a feeling the experience will be the same: Upon seeing the jars, I will have to take a deep breath. I will have to keep the tears from flowing. No, I won’t let myself cry. I’ll cry only, in joy, when the limestone burial jars are back in Kulaman Plateau, where they came from, where they should be.
Rolly Jude M. Ortega, 27, is a freelance web content writer.