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Antiquity of Butuan: Ewer with a Phoenix Head | Rare & Unique Ceramic Artifact from the Philippines

A rare ceramic artifact was added to the Butuan ceramic collection with the purchase of a rare ewer – a restorable white-glazed ceramic with a phoenix head.
Poster by Timothy James Vitales/ NMP Archaeology Division

Butuan is located in northeastern Mindanao Island at coordinates 8.9475°N and 125.5406°E. It is within the Agusan alluvial floodplain, a delta formed by the actions of the fast-flowing Agusan River, one of two major river systems in Mindanao. Bounded on the north, west and south by the province of Agusan del Norte, Butuan is also located on the east of Agusan del Sur, and has Butuan Bay on its northwest. It has a land area of approximately 817.28 sq. km.  

The antiquity of Butuan as a trading center goes back to the 10th century, when it sent tribute missions to China as chronicled in the Song History. Its fame in the  maritime trade became more evident by the accidental discovery of the remains of the first plank-built edge-peg wooden boat in 1976, together with a considerable number of ceramics. 

At the excavation site of Butuan Boat II

After more than forty years, five boats have been excavated by the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP), with one currently exhibited at the site museum in Barangay Libertad. Carbon-14 dates ranged between the 8th–10th centuries C.E. One of our Museum Curators, Dr. Ligaya Lacsina, obtained this data.

This phenomenal discovery, including the recovery of various types of artifacts like the ivory seal bearing the name Butuan, changed the regard on Filipino maritime prowess. It also led to the establishment of an NMP branch in Butuan, which has since been transformed to the Eastern-Northern Mindanao Regional Museum. The recovered ceramics were mostly of Chinese origin, some belonging to the earlier Tang and Five Dynasties, (6th–9th centuries C.E), along with some Vietnamese, Thai, Persian and Southeast Asian pieces.

Detail of the Phoenix ewer.

In 1982, a rare ceramic artifact was added to the Butuan ceramic collection with the purchase of a rare ewer – a restorable white-glazed ceramic with a phoenix head (with accession number 1982-B-2/NMISE-1359) upon the recommendation of Prof. Alfredo Evangelista, then the Assistant Director of the National Museum and an expert on ceramics. An ewer (pronounced: ˈyü-ər, ee·wur; from Latin aquarius, meaning "of or for water") is a large jug with a wide mouth used to carry water used for washing. It predates the more common term pitcher or jug to refer to the same vessel. An ewer is distinguished from a pitcher or jug by the presence of embellishments or its different form, such as a flaring spout and base. It does not only fulfill a function but is also appealing and represents the aesthetics of the period. 

In the case of this ewer, its phoenix head was intact but its body suffered damage probably when it was retrieved haphazardly by treasure hunters. It was restored into a single piece by our restoration team from the Archaeology Division, led by Rey Santiago. The artifact stands at 46 cm, with the widest body diameter at 18 cm, and the base at 8 cm in diameter. It has a long neck, a wide tapered body, and a small base that makes it appear delicate. 

From our research, we traced its origin to a kiln site in Guangdong, China during the Tang Dynasty (also known as Five Dynasties) in the 10th century C.E. White kaolin clay was used giving it a glazed white cream-colored surface. Its most unique feature is its phoenix top that serves as the vessel’s mouth, considered as very rare. As far as was known at the time it was acquired, this ewer was one of only three such examples known worldwide. Besides this one belonging to the National Archaeological Collection, one is in the British Museum in London, UK and the other is in the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota, USA.

The phoenix is considered a mythical bird for East Asian peoples, and for the Chinese, it reigns over other birds. The equivalent Chinese name for phoenix is fenghuang, wherein feng is the male bird while huang is the female. The term would eventually be used to refer to the phoenix as female, usually associated with the empress, especially when paired with the male dragon, which is the symbol of the emperor. 

The Butuan National Museum is now the NM Eastern-Northern Regional Museum.

The Phoenix Ewer was declared a National Cultural Treasure (NCT) on June 14, 2010 and is stored in the repository for ceramics. We are planning to incorporate this in our Palayok exhibition that will enable more access to our important collections. We hope to show this and more once we are authorized to open. In the meantime, enjoy our #MuseumFromHome series, #staysafe and join in the national effort to #BeatCOVID19.

Text and Images by Mary Jane Louise A. Bolunia, and Poster by Timothy James Vitales/ NMP Archaeology Division

© National Museum of the Philippines (2020)

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