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The Butuan Metal Paleograph - Evidences of Prehistoric Writing Systems in the Philippines

The Butuan Metal Paleograph - Evidences of Prehistoric Writing Systems in the Philippines

The term “paleograph”, which means ancient manuscript, is derived from the Greek words “palaios”, meaning old, and “graphein”, meaning to write. The Butuan Paleograph (with Accession Number 1977-A-105) is a 17.8 cm by 1.3 cm strip of yet to be identified type of metal, containing 22 units of inscriptions on one surface. Due to the complexity of creating the curved letters, the script was believed to have been engraved using a pointed metal object.

In the mid-1970s, Butuan City, located in the Province of Agusan del Norte, became one of the hotspots for treasure hunting with the discovery of a number of gold artifacts like pre-Hispanic gold jewelry, crucibles, Chinese fine porcelain and local earthenware pieces. 

The Butuan Metal Paleograph - Evidences of Prehistoric Writing Systems in the Philippines
The Butuan Metal Paleograph, measuring 17.8 by 1.3 cm, was a donation to the NMP, and declared as a National Cultural Treasure in 2010.

It was around this time that the Butuan City engineer’s office informed the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) about the pothunters’ discovery of a metal strip with unknown inscriptions. The Butuan Metal Paleograph, which was initially in the possession of Mr. Proceso Gonzales, the city engineer of Butuan, was later donated to the NMP by a concerned Butuanon, Mr. Leony Benedicto. 

The Butuan Metal Paleograph - Evidences of Prehistoric Writing Systems in the Philippines
A closer look at the 22 units of inscriptions of the Butuan Metal Paleograph. Image from the 2014 NMP exhibition catalogue “Baybayin: Ancient and Traditional Scripts in the Philippines.”

Unfortunately, treasure hunters destroyed the archaeological context of the Butuan Metal Paleograph, and the Butuan City engineer’s office report was the only information on its provenance. allegedly found inside a wooden coffin, artificially deformed human skulls with associated 14th–15th century Ming Dynasty tradeware ceramics were found alongside the the metal strip. This indicates its  relative age as 14th–15th century (the Age of Contact and Trade). 

According to Dr. Jesus Peralta, an anthropologist and former NMP Assistant Director, similar wooden coffin burials containing artificially deformed human skulls have been previously found around the vicinity of Butuan.  He added that it was common practice in ancient Indonesia to inter inscribed metal strips in burials as epitaphs.

Moreover, Dr. Peralta attributed this to the results of a study made by an Indonesian paleographer Dr. S.S. Boechari who suggested that the script was of Javanese origin used from the 12th to the 15th centuries. This was supported by other Indonesian and Thai scholars who studied the inscriptions on the metal artifact but while they were able to read the writing, they were inconclusive as to its meaning. The characters indicate a Hindu-Buddhist influence, which is possibly the earliest evidence in the country. 

The scarcity in archaeological evidence of baybayin as a system of writing by ancient Filipinos may be attributed to the use of very delicate and highly degradable materials such as leaves, bark of trees and bamboo slats. Among those inscriptions that survived the test of time were usually made on pottery or metal.

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

For being one of its kind and a rare find, the Butuan Metal Paleograph was declared a National Cultural Treasure on June 14, 2010. It is currently exhibited at the Baybayin: Ancient and Traditional Scripts of the Philippines gallery of the National Museum of the Philippines. 

The Butuan Ivory Seal and the Revitalization of Baybayin Script in the Philippine National Consciousness

Butuan Ivory Seal

The “Baybayin: Ancient and Traditional Scripts of the Philippines” is a permanent exhibition highlighting baybayin—one of the syllabic writing systems practiced by our ancestors prior to Spanish colonization. It promotes awareness on our traditional scripts, through a showcase of archaeological artifacts, archival records, and ethnographic collection. 

Butuan Ivory Seal, a National Cultural Treasure

Presented among the archaeological evidence of our traditional syllabic scripts is the Butuan Ivory Seal, a National Cultural Treasure (NCT) found in a prehistoric shell midden site in Ambangan, Butuan City, dated to the 10th-13th century. It is made of ivory, and measures 6 cm in length and 4 cm in diameter. It features an engraved ancient inscription on its matrix, suggesting its utilization as a documentary stamp for transactions. Along with other archaeological evidence, the seal corroborates the city’s importance as a trading center.

Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma identified the script as of early Javanese or stylized Kawi that reads “But-ban”, whereas Gijsbertus de Casparis, a Dutch scholar in ancient Indonesian scripts, deciphered it as “But-wan”. Both transliterations refer to Butuan, the current name of the city where the ivory seal was found. 

Filipino children writing Baybayin

Baybayin was widely used by coastal groups in the 16th century. It was often inscribed on leaves using pigments, or on bamboos using sharp objects for engraving. Though eventually replaced by the Roman alphabet in most areas, these syllabic writing systems remain extant through the ethnolinguistic groups Hanunoo-Mangyan (southern Mindoro), Buhid-Mangyan (northern Mindoro), Tagbanua (central Palawan) and Pala’wan (southern Palawan). The #NationalMuseumPH declared these ethnolinguistic groups’ scripts as NCTs in 1997 and were inscribed in the Memory of the World Registry of the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Education (UNESCO) in 1999.

In 2018, House Bill No. 1022, “An Act Declaring Baybayin as the National Writing System of the Philippines, Providing for Its Promotion, Protection, Preservation, and Conservation, and for Other Purposes” was approved by the House Committee on Basic Education and Culture. Once passed into law, the prevalence of baybayin in school curricula, public spaces and structures, packaged items, and print media will soon be expected.


Butuan Metal Paleograph - Text by Camille Ann Valencia, and poster by Timothy James Vitales / NMP Archaeology Division

Butuan Ivory Seal - Text by Gerard Palaya and poster by Timothy James Vitales | NMP Archaeology Division

Images by the National Museum of the Philippines

©️ National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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