detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

: . Gold Fever

(Pair of Garuda Ornaments)

This week's episode of the television newsmagazine Probe explores the "underside" of the Ayala Museum's exhibit "Gold of Ancestors: Pre-colonial Treasures in the Philippines." It traces how excavated gold artifacts found their way up the Philippine social and economic hierarchy, from the hands of provincial farmers like Berto Morales to the gleaming galleries of Manila museums. Along the way, the gold artifacts go through a kind social alchemy, transformed from objects of mere monetary value to inestimable specimens of pre-colonial Philippine "tangible heritage." But even after their transmutation into objects of nationalist reverence, the yearned for material underpinnings for a fragile Filipino identity, the gold artifacts remain haunted, however faintly, by stories of greed, violence, corruption, and betrayal. These other stories come to the fore as Probe displays a veritable rogues gallery of the Marcos era, all purported friends but actual foes of the people they were meant to serve: government officials, priests, military men, communist rebels, and technocrats all stricken with gold fever. The show ends predictably enough by re-interring the stories it had unearthed, even enfolding Berto Morales into a narrative of cultural pride. We are left with a nationalist paean that saddens as it inspires, its very recitation anxiously revealing that assertions of cultural pride, a matter not taken for granted in the Philippines, may and often does fall on deaf ears, sometimes for good reason. As Cheche Lazaro states, in Tagalog no less and while wearing neo-"tribal" attire:
Kahit dumaan lang ang yaman na dala ng ginto sa palad ni Berto, tayong lahat ay pinayaman ng kanyang karanasan. Sa paglutang ng ginto ng ating mga ninuno, unti-unting napatutuyanan na tayo ay mula sa lahing may mataas na antas ng kultura, may angking likas na yaman, at namumukod-tanging galing. Isang pamayanan na mulat na sa kabihasnan bago pa dumating ang mga mananakop. Ang atin ay isang lahing may ipagmamalaki.
For Lazaro, Berto Morales' misfortune, while lamentable, has nevertheless enriched us all. And so we are subtly invited to forget, or at least to brush aside, the ignoble origins of what we deem to be national treasures as we are urged to remember our cultural achievements, our pre-conquest excellence, and our claims to civilization. Hardly a small price to pay for greatness.

View the show, directly through the Probe site here, or through YouTube here:
In 1981, Berto Morales, a farmer employed as a bulldozer operator in an irrigation project in Surigao struck gold. He discovered a treasure trove of gold ornaments while bringing down a hill to collect filling materials.
The discovery, hitherto unknown to the public, is among the largest collection of Philippine archaeological gold in the country as well as in the rest of the world.
Recovered in association with 10th to 13th century Chinese ceramics, the gold ornaments show similarities in form and iconography with artifacts of other cultures in the region. Experts believe the discovery will rewrite history.
“Nothing of this scale and magnitude and magnificence has ever been seen before,” says Dr. Florina Capistrano-Baker, former curator of the Ayala Museum, of the gold find.
Gold specialist Dr. John Miksic of the National University of Singapore describes the “Surigao treasure” as “the single most important tangible heritage of the country.”
Experts say jewelers today cannot imitate or even come close to the quality of the workmanship of the intricate designs of “our ancestors’ gold.”
Part of the Surigao treasure is the Sacred Thread, which is worn during ceremonies and weighs more than four kilos. Baker says the belt-like object is so heavy a mannequin broke because of its sheer weight.
PROBE reporter, Cheche Lazaro, searches for Berto Morales in Surigao. From then on, Lazaro uncovers that Berto’s gold discovery takes many twist and turns -- involving threats to his life and family.
With the help of historians and experts, Lazaro reveals an amazing story about Philippines’ forgotten civilization before the Spanish colonization of the archipelago in the 16th century and how the archaeological gold artifacts associated with the pre-colonization period point to a sophisticated civilization -- something that will give us a sense of identity and pride as a people.
Supported by historical accounts about pre-colonial Philippines, the Surigao gold collection show that we were important players in the region 1,000 years ago and that gold was an important link between our country and the rest of our neighbors.

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