5 Remarkable Works of Ancient Art From the Philippines

5 Remarkable Works of Ancient Art From the Philippines
0.0Overall Score
Reader Rating: (18 Votes)

As Pilipinos we are a very creative and artistic group of people. Drive around Manila and you will see random walls painted in beautiful mural works of art ranging from illustrations of well known historical figures to depicting social and political issues. The art scene in the Philippines isn’t as known as other places in the world, however art history in the country still exists and this history extends to our pre-colonial art.

When you think of art from the Philippines one mainly thinks of paintings such as the famous paintings done by Fernando Amorsolo and Carlos V. Francisco. Others turn to literary works of art such as Jose Rizals infamous Noli Me Tangere or lean toward our indigenous textiles and weaving. Most of these you can all see close up in the National History Museum of the Philippines in their art gallery.

However, what most people don’t know is that we do have some stunning and historically invigorating works of ancient art that isn’t appreciated enough and gives insight to our pre-colonial past. These archaeological finds were made by our ancestors long ago and depicts the artistic talents of their time. Some signify important rites of passage through life and death while others are so intricate that the method used to make them has long been forgotten in history.

Let us take a look through these 5 works of ancient art from the Philippines that tell a story of a past many strive to learn and remember. A past that invigorates us to explore how these ancient artists saw the world to make something special, an idea that hasn’t changed in over a thousand years.


5.) The Manunggul Jar

The Manunggul Jar is an extraordinary work of art fueled by indigenous spiritual beliefs of life after death. This second burial jar was discovered on March 1964 in Manunngul Cave in Lipuun Point, Quezon, Palawan by Victor Decalan, Hans Kasten and several volunteer workers from the United States Peace Corps and archaeologists from the National Museum. It has been dated to the Neolithic Period around 890-710 B.C. and depicts two human figures on a boat on the jar cover. The figure on the back is the boatman paddling the ship with the figure in front being the dead soul as depicted by their hands folded across their chest, a position still widely practiced in the arrangement of the dead. The jar also shows curved lines representing waves of water, a motif of importance in indigenous beliefs and cosmology. In old precolonial beliefs a connection between bodies of water and the afterlife is found throughout the Philippines. In the Bisayas, it was believed that the Goddess Magwayen ferried the dead on her boat across the spiritual river, Lalangban, to Sulad, a purgatory, to finally Saad, the resting place of the dead ancestors. Throughout the Philippines there is also the belief between the upstream and downstream in many cosmologies where the upstream represents birth and life where as the downstream of the river represents death and the afterlife where we return to the sea which brought us to the islands. The Manunngul Jar shows the importance of burial practices and the spiritual beliefs among our early ancestors on the afterlife. It is a symbolic and archaeological evidence of the strong indigenous spirituality in precolonial Philippines. The Manunggul Burial Jar is currently housed in the Museum of the Filipino People, by National Museum of the Philippines in Manila.




4.) The Maitum Anthropomorphic Burial Jars

Discovered in 1991 in Ayub Cave, in Pinol, Maitum, Sarangani Province in Mindanao, were dated to the Metal Age through radio carbon datintg. The jars are unique in that each one is not the same as another. It signifies that these jars represents different individuals in history as each anthropomorphic pottery jar have individual and distinctive features. Some have earrings, long lobes, tattoos, a variety of facial expressions, and a few also have arms, legs, and sexual organs. These different human figures may have been the deceased themselves where their remains were left inside the jar to be guarded. These 27 different jars are intriguing to the eye, a representation of the human spirit even in death. Let their faces watch you.





3.) Angono Petroglyphs

Last September I had the pleasure of visiting the site of the Angono Petroglyphs in Binangonan, Rizal. Without me knowing it I didn’t realize how close the site was to where my tita and tito lived until we passed by a sign reading Angono Petroglyphs as we were driving to their house. It was unfortunate how they didn’t seem to know what I was talking about when I mentioned I wanted to visit there despite them living in such close proximity. Often forgotten even among locals the Angono Petroglyphs is one of the most important archaeological sites and one of the earliest known works of art in the country. Unfortunately it is also close to disappearing due to erosion and vandalism. The Angono Petroglyphs are the oldest known work of art dating to at least 3000 B.C. that depicts 127 carved stick drawings of human figures and animals on the walls. It was discovered by Carlos V. Francisco, a local mural painter and National Artist of the Philippines awardee, who was leading a Boy Scout troop hike in 1965. Despite over 50 years since its discovery not much research has been done on the petroglyphs and we don’t know too much on who the people were that carved these figures and why. It is presumed to have been a place of worship however based on the illustrations on the walls of humans in an orant position with their arms being raised. Currently there is no one really doing a study of the petroglyphs and the site in detail based on my interview with one of the National Museum workers who was on site repairing the small building that is the museum who was excited and passionate about the site based on our discussion. He believes, as well as myself, that there are more like the one in Binangonan to be discovered nearby however without any support from the government and people eager to excavate and study the area finding them at this point in time is hopeless. What isn’t hopeless however is studying the site, the petroglyphs, and preserving them before they disappear forever. Because the Angono Petroglyphs aren’t just a “cave drawing” by people thousands of years ago, but a testament to our precolonial history and how our early ancestors saw their world and took an initiative to tell it and record it through these petroglyphs.





2.) Tattooing

Not an archaeological artifact per se but tattooing among the Philippines was a work of art and spiritual act. Tattooing in the Philippines was once a prestigious rite of passage, one that was earned through bravery and through puberty. When the Spaniards first arrived they noticed the people they met were covered in beautiful black designs that were permanently “painted” on their contrasting brown skin. They mentioned how these designs were another form of clothing to our ancestors, one they took pride in. Not knowing the name of the people they came across at the time they referred to these people they met across the Bisayan islands as The Pintados or “The Painted Ones” for their elaborate and stunning tattoo’s on both men and women. Notable illustrations of these early Bisayans can be found in Francisco Alcina’s Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas (1668) and in the most well known manuscript on early Asian history during the 16th century, the Boxer Codex (c. 1590).

While we do not have any mummified remains of these Pintados the illustrations of them and descriptions of some designs such as the labid – distinctive inch-wide lines both straight & zigzaged up the legs to the waist; and langi – face mask like a crocodile jaws, motifs give us an idea of how these tattooed warriors looked like in their glory.

“The Pintados”, an illustration of the tattooed Bisayans in the Boxer Codex Manuscript. Photo from the Lilly Library Digital Collection of Indiana University.


An Illustration of a Datu and Binukot from Francisco Alcina’s Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas (1668)


An Illustration from Francisco Alcina labeled as Esclavo, “slave”.


1.) Goldwork

The most often discussed subject among the Spaniards involving the islands was gold, the rich amounts of gold found and the detailed motifs as well as creativity used by our early ancestors. The conquistadors were well known to have a keen interest in gold throughout their history of colonization, the Philippines being no exception. Gold mines were found throughout the islands and the abundance of it was enough that the early peoples never took more than what was needed. It puzzled the Spaniards that despite the rich deposits of gold, the people didn’t bother mining the gold with as much force as the Spaniards would have liked and done. Despite this, based on historical accounts our early ancestors had no problem with this as the saying of gold being everywhere was no exaggeration. It was literally everywhere and everyone from the slaves to the nobility had possession of gold on them. Most of this gold was in the form of jewelry such as necklaces, rings, armlets, and rings that were passed down from generation to generation as heirlooms called bahandi. For those who could afford it or were given as gifts through annual raids along the coasts, there were gold dagger handles, gold bowls, gold drinking vessels, religious figures of deities, gold belts, and even from one recovered artifact, a golden sash. Even in death along with their possessions, gold death masks were used to cover their eyes, nose, mouth, or entire face. The craftsmanship of some of these gold products were so sophisticated and of high quality many of the Spaniards praised them for it, often remarking how the goldwork and skills used were of greater value than expected of a people they thought of as ‘uncivilized’.

The early people of the Philippines were so skilled they managed to created pieces of artwork through this historical prized metal. They could carve, hammer, and mold it out to how they wanted. They were even able to develop an artistic technique where they were able to create very fine and thin gold wires and beads to be woven like fabric to create pieces such as thick rope like sashes and intricate jewelry. The goldsmiths of the time were so skilled and their artistry continues to amaze people today through the recovered works of art over the years.


A woman image with her hands raised in an orant position. A part of the Surigao Treasure and owned by the Ayala Museum. Photo taken by Ligaya during the Philippine Gold Exhibit in NYC.


The Kinnari Water Vessel. It is believed to have been used for ritual purposes. The Kinnari is a Southeast Asian divine mythological figure deriving from Buddhism that is half human, half bird. The Kinnari Vessel is one of the many artifacts the emphasizes the history of Buddhism and Hinduism in the Philippines.


A human figure in the orant position on one of the 11 hammered plaques found together in Northeastern Mindanao. The orant position can be found in many artifacts and in the walls of Angono. You can also see motifs found in the plaques that were also tattooed and are still woven in textiles today.


A close up of a golden sash most likely worn by a Datu or Rajah.


These precolonial works of art showcase the artistry and imagination of our ancestors, giving us an insight to their world. This doesn’t even cover the beautiful forms of art such as dance, music, weaving, and epic chanting. Today we as their descendants still continue on their legacy through paintings, digital design, continuing tattooing traditions, and creating works of art that express our ideas, stories, and thoughts.


About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at Pinoy-Culture.com. She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.