Gold of Ancestors: Pre-colonial Filipinos were ‘Kings of Bling’

“Filipinos were the original kings of bling!” I overheard an American visitor exclaim at the Ayala Museum in Makati City last weekend when he beheld over a thousand ancient artifacts made of 22 to 24 karat gold. They are from the 10th to 13th centuries, a time when the archipelago was ruled by many small kingdoms that flourished, establishing trade links with the Far East and Southeast Asia to as far away as India and Persia. I was well aware of the rich culture of pre-Hispanic Philippines, but I did not expect such exquisite and extensive proof to have survived to this day.

Gold image of a kinnari – a half-woman, half-bird creature in Hindu-Buddhist mythology

Gold of the Ancestors, a priceless collection of pre-Spanish Era gold artifacts from around the Philippines, was truly the most breathtaking and enlightening exhibit at the museum, providing tangible proof of the breadth and richness of the Philippines’ cultural influences before Spanish colonization. More than their weight in gold, I was overwhelmed by the artistic and historical value of the collection, which is the most impressive archaeological exhibit in the country.

I first learned about the golden treasures of pre-Hispanic Philippines from history class back in college. I remember seeing illustrations from the Boxer Codex, a 16th century manuscript, depicting pre-colonial Filipinos heavily adorned with gold ornaments.

The 16th century Boxer Codex depicting Filipino noblemen decked in gold

A significant part of the collection belongs to the “Surigao Treasure” accidentally discovered in 1981 by a bulldozer operator working on an irrigation project in Surigao del Norte. There are also gold artifacts on display recovered from other excavations across the archipelago: Camarines Sur, Mindoro, Eastern Visayas and Agusan, to name a few. The most spectacular pieces on display were ear ornaments with garuda designs, identical to the ones I’ve seen as stone carvings at ancient temples in Indonesia; delicate burial masks from Butuan; the image of a kinnari, a deity that’s half-woman, half-bird; and a ceremonial cord (as illustrated in the Boxer Codex) made of woven gold wires that weighed almost four kilograms!

The piece de resistance: a ceremonial sash weighing almost four kilograms!

HOW TO GET THERE: Alight at the Ayala MRT Station, and take a 15 minute walk to Greenbelt Park. Ayala Museum is located at Makati Ave corner Dela Rosa St, Makati City. View location map here. Entrance for resident/non-resident of the Philippines (Ground to Fourth Level: PHP 225/425. One-year membership: PHP 500. For more information, visit http://www.ayalamuseum.org

Photographs: Ayala Museum (Gold Artifacts) & Wikipedia (Boxer Codex)

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