A story prehistoric ceramics tell | Inquirer Opinion
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A story prehistoric ceramics tell

As an avid collector of antiques since the 1970s, it was inevitable that Rosita Arcenas ended up with over 500 pieces of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics, mostly excavated in the Philippines. The pleasing shapes and varied hues lent color to her home. Now well-curated in the University of San Carlos Museum in Cebu, the ceramics have become tangible proof of a lively maritime trade between the Philippines and its neighbors from the 11th through the 19th centuries. Most of these ceramics predate the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521; these pots are prehistoric, though not so far back to the time of dinosaurs and cavemen; rather, these ceramics were made in the period before written records came to existence in the Philippines.

History is a narrative, and the story of these ceramics is the same as those told in the ceramic galleries of the National Museum and by the Roberto Villanueva Collection in the Ayala Museum—stories from artifacts rather than in books and archival manuscripts. Part of our nation’s story comes from old pots that illustrate trade and civilization in these islands long before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Many of these pots are older than the name “Filipinas” such that the pioneering prehistorian H. Otley Beyer defined the 10th to early 16th centuries as a period different from the earlier Stone Age and Iron Age. Based on his ceramic finds, he aptly described this time as “the Philippines in the Porcelain Age.”


Arab and Chinese traders encountered small seafaring communities by the coasts and waterways of the Philippine archipelago in the 9th century. These communities were headed by chiefs, and varied in size and political complexity. Trade was conducted through barter; silk, iron, parasols, glass and porcelain brought by the Chinese were exchanged for the Filipinos’ pearls, tortoise shell, yellow wax, betel nut, abaca fabric, cotton and provisions of fresh water, meat, vegetable and fruit for their onward journey.

Traces of this trade are the ceramics that, in our museums, most people find boring because it seems that once you have seen one blue-and-white Ming plate, you have seen them all. But if you take the time to give these ceramics a second look you will realize that the high-fired imported ceramics are different from low-fired Philippine earthenware; these are impermeable, glazed, ornamented with iron spots or with freely painted auspicious symbols in Chinese or Tibetan characters, as well as with images of pine, prunus, peach, twin, fish, twin Mandarin ducks, dragon chasing pearl, phoenix, and frolicking Fu dogs. These images meant something to the Chinese; what did they come to mean to the early Filipinos? Some high-fired plates and bowls, ringing like a bell when flicked with a finger, came to be used for rituals because they were believed to possess magic qualities.


In time, and because of their design and utility, these imported ceramics became prestige objects that proclaimed their owner’s wealth and status. When Magellan arrived in Cebu, he and his men were served food on porcelain plates.

Most of the ceramics were found in graves, obviously placed there as furniture the soul could bring to the afterlife. Small dishes, globular jarlets and other ceramics accompanied the dead, and of these some of the most prized, then and now, are the miniatures: square jarlets with dragons on the handles; globular jarlets with two ears, or another with lobes that resemble the  balimbing  fruit. These 14th-century Yuan “balimbing jarlets” that come in plain white  qingbai  glaze, or white with brown iron spots, or with floral designs in cobalt blue or underglaze red, are significant because these were not found in China. They were found only in archeological sites in the Philippines and parts of Indonesia, which suggests that they were made specially for export to the Southeast Asian market.

Also prized by collectors are small ceramic pieces of boys with water buffalo. These were used as water droppers on scholars’ tables where water was added to an ink stone on which ink sticks were ground to produce the ink for Chinese calligraphy. What ancient Filipinos used these jarlets and water droppers for, aside from grave furniture, remains a mystery.

Then there are elegant ewers in the shape of the auspicious double gourd with graceful handles in the form of dragons. They come in three types: white qingbai glaze, white qingbai glaze with brown iron spots, or white qingbai glaze painted with floral sprays in cobalt blue. Used as wine vessels in China, what were they used for in the Philippines? A simpler and smaller version of these can be seen in Chinese restaurants today, as droppers for soy sauce or vinegar. In a Filipino home these can be used as vessels for patis.

When the Filipinos were converted to Christianity, their burial practices changed. They were buried on consecrated ground near churches and towns. Porcelain and other pabaon were no longer placed in graves or coffins. But old habits die hard, and in the 21st century Filipinos still practice a form of pabaon by throwing flowers into the grave of loved ones at the time of burial; or by leaving a cut rosary, paper currency, or other keepsakes in the coffin to accompany the dead in the afterlife.

Next time you get bored with a museum display of ancient pots, give them a second look and imagine how they must have figured in our prehistory and how they figure in our lives today.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: antiques, ceramics, collection, History
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