Looking Back

Saved from the pawnshop melting pot

ASIDE FROM photographs, the only visual aid available to help students imagine the “gold Agusan image” is its cheap replicas in resin and gold paint from Butuan. I have never seen the original, and I now regret the fact that after spending days going over the papers and bodegas of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in search of Filipiniana, I did not ask to see it. H. Otley Beyer, the pioneering pre-historian of the Philippines, described it in 1917 as “the most  spectacular find yet made in Philippine archeology.” Since then more “spectacular finds” have turned up, like the Manungul jar and other gold artifacts now displayed in the Ayala Museum.

However, a few of these “spectacular” finds have been proven to be clever forgeries, like an ancient manuscript on tree bark written in the ancient Philippine script, using cuttlefish or “pusit” ink. This  was donated to the National Library before the war by a certain Jose E. Marco. It is the subject of a wonderful play by Floy Quintos, “Fake,” now running in UP Diliman.


The gold Agusan image was found on the banks of the Wawa River in Agusan, Mindanao after a heavy rain. It measures five and a half inches tall and weighs close to four pounds of 21 carat gold. We are lucky it has not been melted down and made into insignificant trinkets. Many gold  artifacts have ended up in pawn shops where these were sold by weight, with no thought to antiquity.

The gold Agusan image survived the melting pot because it went to the Field Museum in Chicago. Beyer recommended that it be purchased for the National Museum of the Philippines. When the government did not move, Beyer contacted Faye Cooper-Cole, Southeast Asian curator at the  Field Museum, Shaler Matthews of the University of Chicago, and even  the wife of then US Governor General Leonard Wood. Thus, the gold Agusan image was purchased by the Field Museum and saved from the melting pot. When rabid nationalist and heritage advocates scream repatriation today, they should realize that many Philippine artifacts are better kept and preserved in museums abroad. Many artifacts have survived to this day because they were not in the National Museum when it was destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945.


Most people are naturally awed by its gold value today, but we should appreciate the image as an important landmark in Philippine pre-history, one of those rare artifacts that show an ancient Indian influence in the archipelago. In 1963, the Filipino Indologist Juan Francisco identified the image as a Mahayana Buddhist figure from the  late 13th or 14th century AD. Other scholars who have studied this figure say the image depicts an Indo-Javanese queen or one of the many deities in Mahayana Buddhism or even Hinduism. Since the image was not found in a systematic archeological excavation, we lost all the associated artifacts that would have put it in context or provide clues to dating. Since the image does not resemble any of the extant pre-Spanish anito, likha or even later images like the bulul , it  has become quite a puzzle. Since it is definitely Buddhist or Hindu in style, the image contradicts Nick Joaquin’s argument that the Philippines was bypassed or ignored by the great cultures of Asia, with the notable exception of China because of trade brought to our shores by Muslim and Chinese traders.

The Agusan image suggests contact between the pre-Spanish Philippines and Buddhism, Hinduism and the other great traditions of Asia. Our  problem is that we don’t know where it was made. By whom? And why?

Beyer was of the opinion that the Agusan image was made in the Philippines by expatriate Javanese who were mining Agusan for gold at the time. On the contrary, the Dutch historian F. D. K. Bosch noted that because its style is different from the extant images made in Java, it could not have been made by Javanese artisans. Bosch said the Agusan image was crafted by pre-colonial Filipinos based on a Hindu or Buddhist prototype. It’s not very flattering to us, but Bosch declared that based on the faulty iconography and inferior craftsmanship, the image was made by Filipinos rather than by Javanese!

One artifact, many questions. What were the Javanese doing in Agusan? Why would Filipinos make a Hindu-Buddhist image instead of a likha or an  anito? If the image was copied from a prototype, was the prototype an actual image or a picture or drawing? Maybe the ancient Filipinos crafted the image for sale to Javanese as souvenirs? Don’t the Manobos, to this day, maintain the art of making small sculptural works in metal?

Couldn’t the ancestors of the Manobo be the ones who crafted the Agusan image? The Agusan image opens a Pandora’s box of questions that don’t even need answers, because just by asking them will keep Filipino historians and archeologists busy for many decades.

* * *

Dr. Benito Legarda sent some welcome corrections to my last column. The complete honorific for Manila was “Insigne, Muy Noble y Siempre Leal,” often shortened to just M.N.y.S.L. The pre-war National Library collection was moved from the Legislative Building to the Philippine Normal School across the street. (The source I read  claimed that the Rizal manuscripts were kept in Manila City Hall.) Most important, the Japanese torched Intramuros on Feb. 7, 1945. American shelling began 10 days later finishing off an already burned-out city.


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TAGS: ancient manuscript, archeology, artifacts, Butuan, craftsmanship, gold Agusan image, National Library, natural history, Otley Beyer, Philippines
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