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Bolinao Skull with Gold Teeth Ornamentation | Filipinos Centuries-old Practice of Dental Ornamentation [Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan]

Bolinao Skull with Gold Teeth Ornamentation | Filipinos Centuries-old Practice of Dental Ornamentation [Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan]
Poster by Timothy James Vitales / NMP Archaeology Division


Why did people in the past choose to participate in the painful process of tooth filing and drilling with inlays? Teeth modification and alteration could signify a rite of passage, mourning a loved one, fostering group identity, or a means of conforming to a concept of beauty. It may also denote the social status of the buried individual. Dental modifications come in many forms: ablation, filing, drilling, inlaying, and staining. 


The Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan is one of the most fascinating burial assemblages that was systematically excavated by the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP). In 1964, researcher Avelino Legaspi led a team of archaeologists, who unearthed 51 adult burials and 2 infant jar burials dating back to the 14th to 15th centuries in a site near the mouth of Balingasay River. 


The burials were associated with grave markers of giant oyster shells (Ostrea malabonensis), earthenware vessels; spindle whorls; metal daggers and a spearhead; 11th century Chinese coins, glass beads, bronze, and gold ornaments; and shell and bone accessories. Grave goods such as these often signified prestige, and indicated the socio-political status of the dead they accompanied. 


Bolinao Skull with Gold Teeth Ornamentation | Filipinos Centuries-old Practice of Dental Ornamentation [Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan]


The most surprising find in the Balingasay excavation was the gold-pegged teeth observed on the skeletal remains of 8 of 51 adult burials. A total of 67 pieces of teeth were found ornamented with gold plates in fish scale design and pegged with gold rivets. 



Bolinao Skull with Gold Teeth Ornamentation | Filipinos Centuries-old Practice of Dental Ornamentation [Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan]


The restored Bolinao Skull (GR 25) was the only skull found with a complete set of teeth with gold-scale ornamentation on the upper and lower incisors and canines. Apart from dental gold ornamentation, dental staining and filing were also observed on the remains of four other graves in the Balingasay Site. 

 

Dental ornamentation and modification were a common practice among pre-colonial Filipinos from the 14th to early 16th century, as observed in burial sites across the Philippines. Some dental remains from Sta. Ana, Manila; Calatagan, Batangas; Banton, Romblon; Pila, Laguna; Bulan, Sorsogon; and San Remigio and Plaza Independencia in Cebu, were either stained, filed, or pegged with gold. 


Bolinao Skull with Gold Teeth Ornamentation | Filipinos Centuries-old Practice of Dental Ornamentation [Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan]
During the 1920s, anthropologist Dr. Carl Guthe of the University of Michigan brought back to the university for examination 43 tooth samples bearing gold pegging marks from burial cave sites in Samar, Negros and Masbate. Dr. Leslie Rittershofer, from the same university, examined these samples in 1937 and noted that the teeth were drilled using a cylindrical round-ended object before the gold peggings were hammered into the teeth.

 

According to Dr. Laura Junker of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the gold dental ornamentation was a social status symbol often reserved for the elite members of the society, while dental filing and staining (or blackening) were more for aesthetics. Gold dental ornamentation among early Filipinos was also described in early Spanish documents. For instance, during the Philippine leg of the Magellan-Elcano Expedition in 1521, an eyewitness account of the Spanish chronicler Antonio Pigafetta described the king of Butuan as having a set of teeth decorated with gold.  


Dental ornamentation and modification were rapidly abandoned during the Hispanization of the archipelago in the 16th century. However, its other forms like filing and staining persisted among some ethno-linguistic groups in the county, such as the Kalingas, Tinguians and Negritos of Luzon, and the Bagobos and Manobos of Mindanao. 


In addition, Zumbroich and Salvador-Amores claimed that the practice of using gold on the part of the mouth that makes it visible can be interpreted as the individual’s attempt to acquire power related to the spiritual forces assigned to the precious metal. 


The Bolinao Skull with gold dental ornamentation was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the NMP in 2010. It is currently kept among the collections in the National Archaeological Repositories at the National Museum of Fine Arts.



The Bolinao Skull


Bolinao Skull with Gold Teeth Ornamentation | Filipinos Centuries-old Practice of Dental Ornamentation [Balingasay Burial Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan]

The formidable Bolinao Skull is only one of 67 skulls recovered from the Balingasay Archaeological Site in Bolinao, Pangasinan. They were found along with several Early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) ceramics.


The skull has teeth that are decorated with gold ornaments, a symbol of wealth and bravery during the prehistoric era.


A cultural treasure of the National Museum, the skull was excavated from a 13th–15th  century  burial site in Balingasay, Bolinao, Pangasinan. The Bolinao Skull stands out because gold scales were observed: “on the buccal surfaces of the upper and lower incisors and canines.” The gold decorations have flat rounded tops that are placed in a bored hole on the teeth. These gold ornaments overlap one another, making them look like fish scales.


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Text and photos by Ivan Cultura and Ame Garong, poster by Timothy James Vitales / NMP Archaeology Division. 

©️ National Museum of the Philippines (2021)


Sources:

(1) Early Aesthetic Dentistry in the Philippines: An Anthropological Perspectiv

March 2014Acta medica Philippina 48(1):68

DOI: 10.47895/amp.v48i1.1204

Authors:

Angelina Atienza

University of the Philippines Manila

(2) 17 Most Intense Archaeological Discoveries in Philippine History



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