Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" and Looting in the Philippines

This post will be the first in a series focusing on the topic of the collection of "other people's treasure" (or the alleged reclamation of "treasure" thought to affiliate with ones' own ethnic or national history) as an ongoing motive for looting and antiquities trading in the Southern Hemisphere. In this instance, I'm referring to a new case of looting that recently occurred (sometime last year, from what I understand from the article) at the sites of Maulohin Cave and Istar Cairn, on Imorigue island in New Ibajay town, Palawan province, Philippines. Dr. Victor Paz (in full disclosure, a colleague of mine) first reported this incident to get the National Museum of the Philippines involved in the investigation, noting that these 500 year old remains, with clear contextual affiliation with Metal Age ceramics and iron weapons, were "stolen by Japanese descendants of missing World War II soldiers."

Paz, acting in his capacity as a representative of the National Museum and member of the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project, convinced the Museum Director, one Cecilio Salcedo, to send additional experts to Palawan to work with local authorities to investigate what occurred, when, and the extent of the damage. Not surprisingly, but in my opinion rather suspiciously, the Japanese Embassy is refusing to comment and feigning ignorance.

Although reports of what occurred still seem unconfirmed, or based upon a few "known facts" and several interviews and "unconfirmed reports," it appears that in May last year, Japanese Nationals with local guides visited the sites and carefully "sorted and sacked" all the bones for removal, but guards stopped the removal before it could go ahead, and the remains were eventually turned over to the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project team who returned them to their original sites, with bilingual signs placed "in clear view" stating that these re-deposited remains were those of prehistoric ancestral Philippinos. Apparently, another sack of mostly material cultural items and shell was also produced, coming from a site no one on the excavation team recognized...suggesting that other nearby sites have also been hit. Dr. Paz, doing his part as a true advocate of archaeological education and anti-looting outreach in his country, has discussed looting issues with concern before, noting again (in light of this case) that "at the rate the looting is going, we will have nothing left for future generations of Filipinos to protect and learn from."

Despite this, the article suggests (if I read it right) that the remains have just recently been removed again, thus sparking the outrage and calls for thorough investigations discussed in the article. As Dr. Paz and others who've worked in the Philippines have personally informed me, many looting cases like the above relate to the story of "Yamashita's Treasure," the likely-mythological burial of immense quantities of gold and other spoils of war 'stolen' by the Japanese fleet from various locations around Southeast Asia and then hidden in caves, tunnels and booby-trapped enclosures throughout the Philippines. The legend has been thoroughly spread by local and American population culture sources (TV, books, video games etc.), but Philippino historian Ambeth Ocampo (among others) has observed that both foreign and Philippino "treasure hunters" have been looking for 50yrs, using every supposed map and bit of oral history testimony they can find, and have still recovered nothing substantial. Yet the dissemination of(ahem) "revisionist" history fueling the search continues apace (e.g. here).

So, here we have the theme of "other people's treasure" seen from two angles: Locals (especially, it seems, foreign nationals and rural villagers) exposed to such legends by foreign and local media and aware of the prices that gold etc. could fetch on the open market, continue to search, occasionally looting prehistoric sites in the process. On the other hand, the Japanese students and nationals allegedly connected to the initial (and perhaps subsequent) removal of bones and artifacts from archaeological context at Maulohin and Istar Cairn destroyed another piece of the Philippines' non-renewable archaeological heritage (i.e. "other people's treasure") to reclaim "ancestors" they erroneously believed to be theirs. The end result is the same. Although this example does not involve a clear intent to sell "other people's treasure" (i.e. human remains and artifacts) on the antiquities market, this motive deserves further investigation where actual looting with intent to sell is concerned.

Forthcoming posts in my first series built around a theme will deal with justifications and influences currently affecting the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade. Not just the import of antiquities from abroad into source countries (primarily Australia and New Zealand, but also Africa or South America where relevant), but also the trade in Aboriginal or Maori artifacts, remains, or pieces of historic "Australiana" and "Kiwiana" which might find markets amongst the new middle class in Asia. Of course, Southeast Asia remains a primary focus. Is the desire to own a tangible piece of the past of a country with a much longer written and/or unwritten history that yours enough of a reason to support the trade? How is the concept of "other people's treasure" used in antiquities marketing down here, or even the marketing of local prehistoric artifacts overseas (where observable)? Is the non-Indigenous collection of Indigenous artifacts still tied to "exoticization" of the "other?" Stay tuned for some semblance of an answer, hopefully with concrete examples to boot. Onwards!

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