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The Prehistoric Stone Sarcophagus in Mt. Kamhantik [Mulanay, Quezon Province]

The Prehistoric Stone Sarcophagus in Mt. Kamhantik [Mulanay, Quezon Province]

A sarcophagus (plural sarcophagi) is generally defined as a box-like burial vessel, mostly carved in stone and placed above ground. Some of the well-known sarcophagi are those of rulers and important people in ancient Egypt and Rome.

Do you know that we have our very own sarcophagus burial tradition here in the Philippines?

sarcophagus burial tradition here in the Philippines
Excavation and recording of Sarcophagus no. 6 by NMP archaeologists Dr. Eusebio Dizon and Hazel Ramirez in 2017.

The #NationalMuseumPH first visited the Mt. Kamhantik Site in 1998. A team led by Dr. Mary Jane Louise Bolunia made an ocular investigation on skeletal remains found during the construction of two telecommunication towers, and reported the presence of human-made stone carvings in the area. In 2011, Dr. Eusebio Dizon, together with Dr. Marc Oxenham of the Australian National University and Dr. Victor Paz of the Archaeological Studies Program of the University of the Philippines, revisited the site and verified the existence of the stone sarcophagi.

Through the collaborative efforts between the #NationalMuseumPH and the local government of Mulanay, the Mt. Kamhantik Site was archaeologically investigated, exposing the burial receptacles and establishing a distinct form of mortuary tradition in the Philippines. 

The site investigation revealed 15 sarcophagi, randomly distributed at the edges of the terraced limestone outcrop, and in an elevated karst platform that stands out in the terrain. Each sarcophagus was carved from the limestone outcrop, and shaped into a rectangular receptacle without a lid. Its interior was furnished with smaller box-like or circular receptacle, possibly as a burial marker or feature. Postholes carved in various sizes were observed on the four corners of the stone burial, possibly intended for posts supporting temporary burial shelters. 

stoneware bowl identified as Changsha ware
The stoneware bowl (right) identified as Changsha ware was recovered inside the carved box-like receptacle (left) at the base of Sarcophagus no. 6.

While 13 of the sarcophagi were found already looted, two stone burials were systematically exposed. Among the grave goods recovered were gold ornaments, bronze bell, iron implements, glass beads, animal bones, earthenware sherds, and Chinese glazed ceramic bowls known as Changsha ware dated to the Tang Dynasty (618–906 Common Era or CE). The site was radiocarbon dated to 920–1060 calibrated BP, or 890 to 1030 CE.

earthenware sherd with incised and impressed designs
Other artifacts recovered during the excavation of the sarcophagi: earthenware sherd with incised and impressed designs (left), small bronze bell (top right), and a fragment of gold ornamentation (top bottom).

The method of stone carving or cutting of the sarcophagus burials in the site was similar with those from known Indonesian sites like Besuki in East Java, Bali, North Sulawesi (Minahasa), Sumatra (Jambi, Samosir, South Batak land), East Kalimantan (Apo Kajan), Nias, and Sumbawa. In the Indo-Malaysian region, the sarcophagus includes a lid and coffin, hewn-out from a massive volcanic rock and comes in various sizes, forms, shapes, and decorations.

Recently, Mt. Kamhantik Site, which lies within a proclaimed protected area and landscape, was declared by the #NationalMuseumPH as a National Cultural Treasure and an Important Cultural Property. Two pottery sherds and the Changsha ware from the site are currently displayed at the “Palayok: The Ceramic Heritage of the Philippines” exhibit at the National Museum of Anthropology (NMA). We look forward to seeing you again once we are allowed to open our doors to the public. In the meantime, here is a link to selected exhibitions at the NMA in which you can virtually visit the Palayok exhibition:



Text and photos by Nida Cuevas and Hazel Ramirez, and poster by Timothy James Vitales | NMP Archaeology Division

© National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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