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Looking Back

‘The Bolinao Skull’

/ 09:15 PM September 01, 2011

Horrendous is the only word that came to mind when I saw the front-page photograph in the Inquirer showing the mountain of Baguio’s garbage that descended on the sleepy woodcarving town of Asin following recent heavy rains. In the past when rocks and soil would fall from the crags and block the roads to and from Baguio, these were called “landslides” but the recent disaster added a new word to Philippine-English usage: “trashslide.” Collecting the garbage is one thing, finding a place to dump it in is another, with towns in Ilocos and Pangasinan rightfully refusing to accept garbage from an irresponsible city that should seriously embark on zero-waste and green programs.

It is not just the mountains that are rejecting our garbage, the same is true of the sea. Until media focused public attention to it, the garbage that accumulates along Manila Bay after heavy rains is cleaned up by the City of Manila, but things don’t have to be the way they are.


Rain and garbage today remind me of times and places where something more valuable turned up. Wasn’t the four-pound, 21-karat Gold Tara image found along the Wawa River in Agusan by a Manobo woman after a heavy rain? If you stay in the San Pedro Beach Resort in Romblon, the owners will show you a plate full of shards:  broken pieces of Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain as well as dark  pieces from Thai ceramics that wash up on their shores after a heavy  rain. Any archeologist or historian who sees this knows that there is an ancient shipwreck waiting to be found and excavated there.

I would often ask antique dealers if pieces of pre-Spanish Philippine gold turned up in Samar and places in Mindanao after heavy rain. Now it seems the only things that turn up are garbage and plastic that are not bio-degradable.


Someone should write about the trail of antiquities, from dealers to the source, because these chance finds are clues to be followed up by archaeologists and historians trying to piece together our pre-Spanish past. As I mentioned in a previous column, many of these gold finds are brought to pawnshops and small goldsmiths who melt them down. It is quite depressing to imagine traces of our ancient heritage converted into trinkets.

Porcelain washed up from a gravesite can be sold, and so with beads that can be strung into something wearable. But through the years that I have been collecting, I have heard about teeth that turned up decorated with gold pegs. Rejected by antique dealers and our museums, the enterprising scavengers just separate the gold from the tooth and sell the precious metal by the gram.

Sometimes I wonder if complete jaws with gold teeth have been found, or perhaps a whole skull that holds clues into the life of the person and the context in which he or she lived. Teeth are some of the most sturdy parts of the human body and are used by medico-legal or CSI detectives today to identify corpses that have decayed beyond recognition. When studied by archaeologists, these teeth reveal clues as to diet, eating patterns, and perhaps even social structure in  ancient societies. Some old skulls are marked by artificially deformed  or flattened foreheads, a mark of beauty in pre-Spanish  Philippines. It is said that a piece of wood was tied tightly around  an infant’s forehead when the skull was still soft and maturing. It was another form of deformation similar to the practice of binding the feet of Chinese women to keep them small.

Modern dentists use gold to fill in cavities because the eternal metal is soft and does not tarnish or decay. In the past, gold was made into pegs that were put into teeth in what was an excruciatingly painful procedure. Thus gold teeth were not just a mark of wealth but of strength and bravery too.

Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the  Magellan expedition in 1521, who marveled at the amount of gold jewelry worn by the people, noted that one chieftain “had three spots of gold on every tooth” and when he flashed a smile or spoke, “his teeth appeared as if bound with gold.” Archaeological evidence has validated Pigafetta’s observations because various forms of gold ornamentation on pre-Spanish teeth have been found and studied.

From examination with the naked eye and x-rays, it has been found that  small holes were drilled into the teeth that were filled with gold  disks, gold plugs, gold wire, or gold pegs. Each type of attachment  produced a different type of look on the surface that varied with the  time and place in which it was implanted.

One of the most intriguing archaeological treasures now on display in the National Museum, after years of security and isolation in storage, is the “Bolinao Skull” which was recovered from the Balingasay archeological site in Bolinao, Pangasinan. It is a complete skull, one of 67 found with Ming dynasty (1368-1644) ceramics, that has gold ornamentation on teeth different from those found elsewhere. Instead of pegs producing dots in various geometric shapes, this skull has gold scales on the “buccal surfaces of the upper and lower incisors and canines.”


Not for the squeamish, this national treasure has yet to reveal all its secrets, supplementing Philippine history. When he smiles this dead man does tell tales.

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TAGS: archaeology, Baguio City, featured columns, garbage, gold, History, opinion, relics
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