Butuan has gotten a raw deal from our group. We’ve used it as a home base of sorts, having gone to this city 3 times in the past 5 days of our northeastern Mindanao swing, yet we’ve never really treated it as more than a jump-off point going to other destinations. On the penultimate day of our tour, we decided to at least give Butuan the attention and appreciation it deserves.
Butuan is located at the very center of the province of Agusan del Norte and used to be the provincial capital. Since its classification as a “Highly Urbanized City” in 1995, it has become independent of the provincial government, although a lot of the latter’s offices are still located in Butuan itself instead of the new provincial capital of Cabadbaran. The city is also the seat of the Caraga administrative region (Region XIII) and thus also hosts its offices.
THE ANCIENT AND MODERN CITY
At the end of the previous entry, I’ve described Butuan as an “ancient and modern city”. The “modern” part is pretty evident once you arrive there. It’s a bustling city with wide avenues, an active public transportation system, malls, schools, hospitals, electricity, pollution, etc. In a past entry, I made mention of the fact that Butuan is a transportation hub for northeastern Mindanao. This was actually an understatement because it’s the biggest center of commerce in Caraga, with extensive economic dealings also with the Visayas, towards which its coast faces.
It is however its “ancient” aspect that makes it special and important as far as tourism and historical awareness is concerned. Evidence of a rich prehispanic civilization exists in Butuan and it is this forgotten face of the city that we intended to see for ourselves. Butuan is such an archaeologically-important area that the National Museum has built and maintained facilities in the city, rather than transporting important historical artifacts all the way to Manila. This is something that I find myself agreeing with because I believe historical artifacts are best viewed within the context of the locale where they were originally found. Of secondary importance is the fact that it also encourages tourism to Butuan. (Because anyone who has ever gone to Butuan will readily admit that it lacks the natural beauty that the nearby Surigao provinces possess.)
A MUSEUM VISIT
Naturally, the first place we visited was the National Museum’s branch in Butuan. We actually arrived at lunchtime when the museum was closed so the guard apologized to us as he asked us to return after an hour. Fortunately, there was a nearby well-shaded park across a stream where we could hang out while waiting. We each found spots at the circular concrete benches and spent the time just taking it easy. As for me, I tried to sleep for a bit but later on got restless, so walked around and went to the stream to watch the fishes.
After an hour, we finally entered the museum, but we were disappointed to find out that we were not allowed to photograph the exhibits. This is one policy that is common to all museums that I’ve been to, and I find it rather pointless because photographs of the exhibits, if anything, even serve to entice people to go visit the museum. So no potential revenue is really lost. It’s especially pointless in the case of the National Museum in Butuan because they didn’t even collect an entrance fee.
Anyway, as what might be expected for anything run by the government, I wasn’t too impressed with the appearance of the exhibits and I really think they could have been improved. By their nature, exhibits should be primarily visual. The highlight should be the exhibits themselves and any explanatory text should be brief and concise. People go to Museums to see things and not to read about them (which they can certainly do in the privacy of their own homes.)
On that point, a large portion of the premises were used to explain in detail the centuries-long geological processes that formed the land where Butuan is now located – a dreadfully boring subject matter unless you’re a geologist – and it seemed as if the text of an entire study was put up as an exhibit, dwarfing the illustrative scale model itself. It’s like creating a PowerPoint presentation and putting paragraphs of font size 10 text on the slides, instead of helpful graphs and bullet points.
THE MORE INTERESTING ROOM
Needless to say, we spent a lot more more time in a considerably more interesting section of the museum, which is an air-conditioned hall where all the historical artifacts are exhibited. Except for a few pieces with gold and various precious metals on them, most of the items in the exhibit were purely historical (rather than monetary) in value.
Like most Philippine museums I’ve been to, a large percentage of the exhibit is composed of earthenware/ceramic pieces of different periods and origins. While this does not look impressive to the casual observer, it does give an idea of the extensive trade links of the ancient kingdom with other kingdoms/empires in the region such as China, Siam (Thailand), Champa (Southern Vietnam), Khmer (Cambodia), India, and even as far away as the Persian empire (!). There were also human bones on exhibit, as well as some other tools used in everyday life, i.e. cutlery, wooden oars, cookware, goldsmith-ing equipment, etc.
It was unfortunate that the famous Butuan Golden Tara that’s on exhibit in this room is only a replica, the original currently being held in the Chicago Field Museum after being recovered from the left bank of the Wawa River after a flood in 1917. The Golden Tara, a Buddhist figurine with heavy Indian influences, is perhaps the most salient evidence of cultural linkages between itself and India, as well as Butuan’s identity as an Indianized kingdom. (This Indian-Buddhist heritage is something that is awfully absent in history textbooks in Philippine schools. Many writers seem to believe that the only culture of any significance prior to the arrival of the Spanish was Islamic culture.) The official brochure dates the image to 900-950 AD or the Saliendra period of the Sri-Vijaya empire. This makes the image as old as the Borubudur Temple in Java, Indonesia.
A particularly interesting exhibit there is the Butuan Silver Paleograph. As the name denotes, it is a small silver strip with inscriptions. It was found by treasure hunters who unearthed a burial site. Attempts to decode what the inscriptions mean have so far been unsuccessful. An expert from Indonesia who studied the inscription gave the opinion that the script was similar to one that was used in Java in the 12th-15th centuries.
There were supposedly two of these found and only one was secured by the city government. The other one was kept by a treasure hunter who vehemently refused to part with it, claiming that it will help him find more treasures. (If you find that dreadfully vacuous, then I completely agree with you.)
While I found this room fascinating, I also found myself silently lamenting the rich past that we have forgotten, a time when we were not subjects of a western power and that we were more regionally integrated with our southeast Asian neighbors. I’m a huge fan of Spain and Hispanic Philippines, but I deplore the way relics of our rich past were forgotten, erased and, in a lot of cases, systematically destroyed in an attempt to adopt the new western culture and beliefs brought by the Spaniards.
WHEN TRASH BECOMES PRICELESS
After about an hour of touring the museum it was time to proceed to our next destination. We hailed a passing tricycle and rented it for the rest of the afternoon as we had two more places to go to, the next one being the Bequibel Shell Midden in Barangay Bonbon. We had a bit of a hard time looking for the place, but we did manage to find it by asking around.
What is a “midden”? Basically, it’s the trash of prehistoric people, and thus are considered unmistakable evidence of prehistoric human settlement and habitation of a certain area. For archaeologists, it’s a gold mine of information on how people lived in prehistoric times – what they ate, what tools they used, changes in geological and meteorological patterns, etc.
Unlike most archaeological sites in Butuan, this shell midden actually sits on private land, and thus was named after the owners of the land – the Bequibel Family. (This was also the reason why we had difficulty in finding the place – we were under the impression that “Bequibel” was the name of the place, when in fact is was “Bonbon”.) Fortunately, the head of the family, Mr. Horacio Bequibel, was there during our visit and he was very wiling to give us an impromptu lecture on the midden.
According to archaeologists who studied the midden, the land where Baranggay Bonbon is located was already settled 7,000 years ago, albeit in a different form. At present, ricefields are located there, but it used to be a shallow riverbed that has since dried up when the river changed course. Aside from the shells, the excavations conducted in the midden unearthed pig and deer bones, tools and even human skeletons.
Mr. Bequibel claims that when he was a kid, the site used to be a much higher mound where children used to play. Everyone was so oblivious to the archaeological significance of the midden that nobody made a big deal of it when a truck carted off most of the mound to be used as filling material (“panambak”) in a construction site. It was only later that they realized the significance of the site when scientists made a visit and informed them of what they had. It was a good thing that despite the loss of a substantial portion of the mound, they were still able to get valuable data because the midden went deeper underground than anyone had realized.
We were told that the land where the midden sits is currently embroiled in a soft tug-of-war between the city government of Butuan and the national government. To simplify things, the latter, through the National Museum, wants to take possession of the land for study because of its archaeological importance. On the other hand, the city government wants it for the same reason, with the added hope that it could generate revenue for the city by developing it as a tourist site. Regardless of which entity eventually takes possession of the land, I realy do hope that the Bequibel family is justly compensated for it.
FACE TO FACE WITH THE BALANGAY
As I explained in a past post, every grade school Filipino student knows that the word barangay, pertaining to the most basic unit of local government, is derived from the much older word balangay, a wooden boat used by prehispanic Filipinos where the social hierarchy observed in the boat paralleled their social roles when they settled on land. For the most part of modern Philippine history, references to the balangay were based purely on sparse eyewitness accounts during first contact between the Spaniards and ancient FIlipinos, most notably those by Antonio Pigafetta, chief chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage.
As no Illustrations were ever provided in these early accounts, consequently, no one was really sure of what a balangay looked like for a very long time. It was noted though that even back in Pigafetta’s time, the word balangay was already being used as a local government term.
In the 1970s, a treasure-hunting craze swept the city due to some valuable artifacts being found. In the process, a number of remarkably well-preserved balangays were unearthed. Since these were considered worthless by treasure hunters, they were simply reported to the authorities for possible study. The immense historical value of these relics were immediately realized and both the national and city governments cooperated to establish a branch of the National Museum in the city to safeguard and further study the balangays and other related artifacts. Right now, the National Museum has an onsite facility that houses three balangays and has balangay no. 1 (i.e., the first one to be found) enshrined as the centerpiece. Even the site where it was dug out of was preserved.
For a history buff like me, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed upon seeing balangay no. 1 face-to-face. This was much older than the boat-shaped stone markers of the Nakamaya burial grounds in Batanes (and I found that one pretty overwhelming too.) Seeing an actual balangay is by far the oldest direct link to anything man-made in prehispanic Philippines that my eyes have ever set on.
It’s kind of sad that we don’t have enduring stone structures like the other nations do, and all we Filipinos have are fragile artifacts. But I’m nevertheless thankful that I had the chance to see and touch something that was made by the hands of people whom I could reasonably ascertain are the oldest of my ancestors. (Balangay no. 1 was encased in glass, but nos. 3 and 4 were not, and so I was able to touch them.)
AT THE END OF THE DAY
By the end of our trip we were already very hungry and there wasn’t really any reason not to ask the tricycle driver drop us off at the to Gaisano Mall to gorge on foooooooood. It was an awkward time to eat a heavy meal as the sunset was still 2 hours away. But we’ve long since ceased to care about proper meal schedules and we decided to have combined lunch/dinner that afternoon. We were flying back to Manila the next day and had to leave for the airport early anyway, so we planned to retire early for the night.
That afternoon, throughout the social media, everybody was talking about the huge storm that was about to hit Manila the next day, but we could not bring ourselves to worry about it, possibly because we were too tired and we were having far too good a time during the entire trip (except for the accident at Tinuy-an, that is.)
It was a hectic, tiring, eye-opening, fascinating and overwhelming first ever visit to Mindanao for me. I’m glad I started with the northeast. I’m looking forward to discover more of Mindanao in the future.
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This entry is part of the Surigao & Butuan series dated September 22-27, 2011:
1. The Ugly Side of Surigao del Norte
2. Preview: Surigao del Sur’s Twin Gems
3. The Surigao & Butuan Series (prologue)
4. Bucas Grande and Sohoton Cove
5. A few stops between Sohoton and Socorro
6. The Long Road to Bislig and Tinuy-an Falls
7. An Afternoon in Hinatuan
8. A Heritage Tour of Butuan