An intriguing gem was on display at the Asia Society Museum in New York. Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms brings forth an important period in history that many never knew existed. Before Ferdinand Magellan and the arrival of the Spanish in 1565, the Philippine islands were populated by kingdoms that were as prosperous and advanced as its Western counterparts. Though no recorded history was ever found, its story is revealed through the 120 or so objects on display.
The first section, Archaeology, relates to the findings of 10 gold pieces (dating 10th to 13th century) by a Frenchman named Alfred Marche in 1881. Since then, further discoveries were made from time to time until a prominent couple—Archeologist Cecilia Locsin and her husband, architect Leandro Locsin, acquired more than 1,000 items—everything from bangles, rings, goblets and unusual ear ornaments.
The second, Trade, details the importance and growth of its maritime trade commerce and how it developed into a thriving means of growth and prosperity for the region. The scope of these findings found its way in the influence from other regions and cultures, such as China, Java and far-away Persia. It speaks of the strength these kingdoms played in the role of world trade and the reputation of being the second largest gold reserve in the world.
The third, The Kingdom of Butuan, focuses on its various gold objects and how each piece personified the person wearing it: from the village chief (datu) to its emissaries.
The fourth, Beyond Butuan, goes into detail about the pictorial description of their livelihood through an important 1590 document of illustrations—the Boxer Codex.
Gazing through each section, I was amazed on the skill and expertise of these peoples—so finite and intricate that special magnifying glasses were provided for those curious to study how possible it was for these gifted craftsmen to create such elaborate objects of beauty and art.
Barter rings (used as personal ornaments) and gold “piloncito” coins were conceived as currency within this immensely vast network—from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea; other items, such the dagger and scabbard found in Mindanao, were of utilitarian use as well as decorative. Thoroughly within the different areas of the gallery, more surprises abound.
I noticed that the royals were in communion with the fanciful and the pretty. Fixated at a set of Ear Ornaments from Augusan del Norte, ca. 10-13th century, its loopy shape and detail appears typical of calabash gourds that usually grow wild in warm, tropical areas—its graphic design is quite minimal yet powerful in its organic approach to what it represents.
Craftsmen usually sought inspiration from images beyond the domestic: natural, organic, communal, or spiritual in one form or another. What came to mind was a Set of two waist cord weights, Surigao del Sur province, ca. 10th-13th century. A precursor to the belt buckle, these items create an organic, plant-like quality within them—reminiscent of the star anise, a dried fruit native to eastern Asia used for cooking. Most interesting is its rope-like detail around the entrance—a representation of what the item was intended for.
Another feast to the eyes was the ever-present KInnari, Surigao, ca. 10th-13th century. In the shape of a feathered creature with a head of a woman, this exquisite representation is a type or kind of demigod that usually appears in Hindu and Buddhist art. Though the work appears damaged, the detail of both the head and body is quite extraordinary—its eyes appear to be staring into enlightenment. The other object, a Sash or Caste cord, Surigao, ca. 10th-13th century, worn from upper shoulder to lower hip and clasped with a loop, is made from hundreds of gold fibers, beads and loops interwoven symmetrically into a near 5 ft. long, square-shaped work of beauty.
In death, importance was placed in keeping bad spirits from the deceased, and certain objects were made for that purpose; orifice covers (for the eyes and mouth) and funerary masks. One particular one, Mask, Butuan, Augusan del Norte, ca. 10th-13th century, lends a facial expression of royal importance: determined eyebrows, sharp nose and cheeks, fierce smile and the markings of a crown over its head—somewhat similar to the Macedonian funeral masks from the 5th century BC.
Lastly, as I come to view the Boxer Codex images, gold was everywhere on each illustration representing the rank and file of Philippine royalty—the beauty each object is lavishly conveyed and reads of importance and status—wearing layers upon layers of gold chains, beads, diadems and waistbands was quite common amongst men as well as women, giving their loyal onlookers a means of identification and also the manner by which to act in their presence.
In the end, as I sat and contemplated a seven-minute documentary read-through of the exhibition, I was elated to have found such a great and unique display of unknown history, vast treasures and forgotten kingdoms.