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24 August 2007 (The Inquirer) – Columnist Ambeth Ocampo writes about the ceramics, commonly trade ceramics, found in Philippines and in Philippine waters.

Clues to Philippine prehistory
by Ambeth Ocampo

MANILA, Philippines — At the start of each semester, when I meet a new class for the first time and go over the syllabus, I watch out for the collective groan that comes when I announce that a visit to the National Museum is required. For many college students who had to endure a grade school trip to the museum, going there a second or third time is considered cruel and unusual punishment. This mind-set is not the fault of the museum; it is the fault of the teacher or museum guide who did not infect the students with a sense of discovery and appreciation of our past. Many of my students complain after visiting the National Museum that they do not want to see another piece of blue-and-white ceramic for the rest of their lives, but they say this because they do not appreciate not just the artistic and symbolic beauty of the pieces but more importantly the fact that these are traces of a long and complex story that goes beyond our written history.

If you haven’t visited it yet, there is a very comprehensive display of ancient porcelain excavated from Philippine archeological sites in the Ayala Museum. Ably curated by the president of the Oriental Ceramic Society of the Philippines, Rita Ching Tan, the exhibition is but a small fraction of the Roberto T. Villanueva collection of ceramics that used to be kept in a private museum in Forbes Park. At first glance, you will be overwhelmed by a hall filled with ceramics, but Rita Tan has not only arranged them by point of origin — China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia — she has also arranged the Chinese section chronologically by type so that anyone can follow the development of Chinese ceramics from the 9th to the 19th century and appreciate these artifacts, which have been imported into the Philippines over the centuries. Now that the United States is making such a big fuss over Chinese exports, and we are told not to eat White Rabbit candy or give children Chinese-made toys, it would be interesting to note that we have been importing things from China for over 1,000 years.

Over the years, I have been picking up pieces of ancient ceramics from antique shops not for a systematic collection but rather as souvenirs of a pre-Spanish past. Over the years, I have tried to read up on ceramics starting from the pioneering work by Leandro and Cecilia Locsin’s “Oriental Ceramics Discovered in the Philippines.” Much of the material is scattered over a number of books, all of them out of print and hard to obtain. And even if I had a book on ceramics or a photocopy, there is no substitute to seeing actual pieces. Now that the Roberto T. Villanueva collection is on display and arranged so sensibly, one can get an introduction to pre-colonial trade.

A smaller exhibition of Chinese ceramics, also curated by Rita Tan, is on view in Kaisa Museum in Intramuros. I tell myself that if I had these resources when I was a student, my visits to the National Museum and my lessons on pre-colonial Philippine history would have been enriched and made more engaging.

If the present Ayala Museum exhibition were done 20 years ago, I would have been more appreciative of my mother’s modest collection of ceramics. Once she arranged them all neatly on a shelf in my study and I was so upset by the intrusion that I gathered everything and left them in a box outside the door. Infuriated, she threatened to break a particularly beautiful Song period celadon plate on my head but changed her mind when she realized how much more valuable — historically and monetarily — the plate was than her son’s hard head. Years later, I ate my pride and sheepishly asked for a few pieces and, like all mothers, she forgave. I inherited the whole lot of mostly Ming 15th to 16th century pieces.

These days whenever I go to the beach, I spend time with goggles and snorkel, scanning the bottom of the sea for broken shards of ancient ceramics that fell off some ancient ship. In Mindoro, I found some Ming period shards of blue-and-white ceramics and pieces of black ceramics made in Thailand. In Cebu, aside from a broken Noritake plate and a torn condom, I found two pieces from a Ching (probably 19th century) plate.

When I show these to the locals, I’m usually told that these things turn up on the shore after a storm, making me imagine shipwrecks with ancient cargo in the vicinity. I’m often shown other broken pieces that are just tucked away in homes, sometimes even used as markers for a game of “piko” or even “sungka.”

Now that most of the archeological sites on land have been exhausted, the last frontier is the sea. Clues to our pre-history lie on the sea-bed, and we are glad that the National Museum Underwater Archeology Section, in cooperation with interested individuals like the Frenchman Frank Goddio, are bringing things to the surface. By patiently documenting each piece in its historical context, they help complete the proverbial jigsaw puzzle we call Philippine pre-history.

So many resources available today were not around when I was a student. We hope these can be disseminated in a more popular and lively way so that museum visits will be a joy rather than a chore.

Books about the archaeology of the Philippines and ceramics found in the Philippines:
Glances: Prehistory of the Philippines by J. T. Peralta
The Tinge of Red: Prehistory of Art in the Philippines by J. T. Peralta
Filipino Prehistory : rediscovering precolonial heritage by F. L. Jocano

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