Art Exhibit: Philippines' 'Gold of Ancestors'

The Philippines has long been regarded as an interesting sideshow in Southeast Asia. A former colony of Spain, then the United States, it seems to have more in common with Latin America than with its Asian neighbors. There are few existing written records of its precolonial history and culture. It has no temples like Indonesia's Borobodur or Cambodia's Angkor Wat to indicate what civilizations existed on the 7,107 islands before their Western conquest. Artifacts on display at the National Museum and at the Central Bank Museum in Manila offer clues as to the islands' original inhabitants, but the available scholarship leaves too many questions unanswered. More than a century after the Philippines became an independent republic, the debate over the Filipino identity continues.

A new permanent exhibition at the privately owned Ayala Museum in the financial capital, Makati City, only heightens the mystery. "Gold of Ancestors" features 1,059 precious objects that are believed to date back as far as the 10th century. Most were acquired by a private collector, and have never been seen in public. Among the pieces on display are cutwork diadems, funerary masks, ornaments and ritual containers. Their quality and scope suggest that ancient Filipinos had closer links to their Southeast Asian neighbors than is currently supposed. There is a gold vessel in the shape of a creature that is half-bird, half-woman: the "kimnari" of Hindu mythology. A plaque depicts a female figure in an elaborate headdress with a tree-of-life motif, her hands raised as if in worship. The centerpiece of the exhibition is an intricately crafted gold halter, weighing almost four kilograms, that is believed to be the Upavita, or Sacred Thread, of the sort worn by the elite Brahmin class in traditional Hindu society.

Hindu influences can be seen all over Southeast Asia, but the exhibit raises the burning question: who made these objects? Were they created by the inhabitants of the islands now known as the Philippines, or were they brought in by foreign traders? "The answer is, 'We don't know'," says Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, curator in charge of the exhibition. "One of the reasons the collection is so important is that it provides a large body of works for comparative study with similar objects from Southeast Asia, such as those found in Oc-Eo in Vietnam and the Wonoboyo hoard in Indonesia. We assume that they are locally made until proven otherwise."

To be sure, gold is abundant in the Philippines. When Spanish conquistadors first arrived in the islands, they noted that the natives were bedecked in gold ornaments from head to foot. According to colonial accounts, the Filipinos were so knowledgeable about gold that even children could accurately determine the purity of gold alloys. There was also a sophisticated vocabulary for gold and indigenous goldsmithing techniques, as recorded in the 16th-century Tagalog-language dictionary collated by Pedro de San Buenaventura. Another argument for local manufacture centers on a pair of gold "lingling-o," omega-shaped ornaments, featured in the exhibit. These ornaments, found in many Southeast Asian cultures, were long believed to have been manufactured in Vietnam. But the recent discovery by the archeologist Peter Bellwood of a lingling-o workshop with tools and fragments in the northern Philippine province of Batanes indicates that such ornaments were manufactured there some 2,500 years ago.

Still, the artifacts on display reveal plenty of other influences. Capistrano-Baker surmises that whoever made them was exposed to Hindu beliefs. Furthermore, "We can assume that there was social stratification, with sufficient food supply and surplus resources to support craft specialization," she says. "The patrons appear to have enjoyed great power and access to resources."

Where have the objects been hiding all these years? They were collected by the family of the late National Artist and architect Leandro Locsin, which for decades has funded archeological expeditions and research into the islands' past. Reluctant to flaunt gold in a country where most of the population lives in poverty, the Locsins have been sitting on the collection for 25 years, waiting for the right conditions to publicly exhibit it. They finally got the chance when the Zobel de Ayala family inaugurated the new Ayala Museum in 2004, providing an appropriate facility to house the collection. "This exhibition is not about present-day personalities and egos," says a representative of the Locsin family. "It's about our national patrimony and what it can tell us about who we are as Filipinos. The primary concern is its enlightened stewardship: ensuring that this knowledge develops in our people's consciousness in a manner that is sustainable, secure and relatively free from possible manipulation."

Scholars have long considered Filipino culture marginal in comparison with the better-known Funan, Angkor, Srivijaya and Madjapahit cultures of Southeast Asia. The "Gold of Ancestors" exhibit suggests that the islands may have played a larger role in regional affairs than previously thought. John Miksic of the National University of Singapore, an authority on Southeast Asian prehistory, has said that this collection represents the single most valuable tangible heritage of the Philippines. It may shine a light on the continuing discussion of Philippine cultural identity. To paraphrase that famous fictitious archeologist Indiana Jones, it belongs in a museum.