Maitum jars: 22 bags of artefacts seized

Rather disturbing news from Southern Philippines – remember the Maitum jars that were discovered this year? 22 bags of Maitum artefacts were seized from a man with questionable (and outdated) government permits. It seems that the permits were also made out to an antiquities trading company.

Maitum Jars, Minda News, 03 September 2008

22 bags of cultural artifacts seized in Maitum
Mindanews, 03 September 2008

Twenty-two bags of sherds similar to artifacts from the Metal Age anthropomorphic secondary burial jars discovered in Pinol cave here in 1991 were seized by local police and the local government is holding on to the artifacts claiming these may have come from the same area.

While it’s commendable that the local government was able to intercept the shipment of the artefacts from Maitum to Manila – and indeed, a local who knew about the value of these artefacts tipped the police off – the real tragedy is the loss of archaeological data.

The sherds were apparently sorted already as one plastic bag, for instance, contained sherds of faces and ears, eyes and mouth. Another plastic bag yielded sherds of hands and elbows. SPO2 Regional Delfin, one of the policemen who intercepted the cargo, told MindaNews a resident who was apparently aware of the priceless value of the cultural artifacts phoned the police about the “suspicious-looking” cargo.

It’s mind-boggling the amount of excavation that had to be done to recover 22 bags worth of artefacts. What’s disgusting is that the people responsible were probably not even appreciative of the archaeological value of the artefacts than their monetary value, since the sherds were sorted by body part. I can see it now – a whole face would sell for 500, while an elbow would go for maybe 50. What’s even more mind boggling is what kind of data that was lost – how many jars were there? How deep were they buried (so that we can get an idea of age)? What kind of spatial distribution patterns could be observed? Was there eanything else in the jars? I expect that it would be impossible to tell how many distinct people were depicted on the jars at this stage. It’s even more tragic because the Maitum jars are practically unique in Southeast Asia – the jars, dating to approximately the first few centuries ACE each have a unique face, possibly to indicate the face of the person buried in the jar. There doesn’t seem to be any similar kind of ceramic tradition anywhere else in the region. As any archaeologist will tell you, the act of excavation is an inherently destructive exercise: you only have one shot at the data, and once you’ve lost it, it’s gone forever.


1 comment to Maitum jars: 22 bags of artefacts seized

  • Grace Barretto-Tesoro

    13 October 2008

    Statement from the Katipunan Arkeologist ng Pilipinas, Inc.(KAPI)Board of Trustees

    Re: The Seized Maitum Artefacts

    KAPI is against the illicit trade of antiquities.

    The recent news regarding the seized anthropomorphic jars in Maitum, Saranggani, Mindanao highlights a critical issue concerning the illicit trade of antiquities in the Philippines. The existing laws protecting cultural heritage are good; however, they are not enforced. The seized Maitum artefacts reveal that treasure hunting continues at a brazenly large scale.

    Archaeology has been losing this battle for decades now and will continue to do so if treasure hunting and illicit antiquity trade are not stopped. We cannot tell the public how much information has been lost. We are greatly handicapped by the trade in our role as professionals who study the past for the benefit of knowledge for all. We record every piece, every data, and the minutest detail, so we can add more to our knowledge about the history of the Philippines. Excavations and analyses entail huge labour, resources, money, and sometimes even blood, sweat, and tears, and we take pride in this.

    KAPI would also like to commend the local government units, particularly that of Maitum, who confiscated the materials. We need more vigilant people to report misdealings and illegal excavations.

    The illicit trade of antiquities must be stopped! Let us help the lead government body, the National Museum of the Philippines, protect the archaeological heritage of the Philippines.

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