The Laguna Copperplate is considered as the oldest written document in the Philippines. This artifact pushes back the country’s recorded history about 600 years earlier than the recorded arrival of the Spaniards in 1521.
This archeological treasure is just one of the thousands of artifacts exhibited at the Museum of the Filipino People.
The Museum of the Filipino People is housed in the old Commerce Building. While the old Legislative Building houses the National Art Gallery, this museum holds the anthropological and archeological collection of the National Museum.
Built in 1939, the Commerce Building was designed by Filipino architect Antonio Toledo. It was severely damaged during World War II but has been rebuilt exactly the way it was after the war. The Athenian architecture is easily recognized when looking at the building from the south entrance.
The Marble Hall beyond the south entrance, with its stained-glass and coffered ceiling and the grand staircases with its exquisite grillwork are some of the stunning architectural details to behold.
Sitting on one corner of the landscaped courtyard is an authentic Ifugao house from Mayaoyao. This one-room house on stilts was dismantled piece by piece and was carefully reassembled in the courtyard.
A ladder invites visitors to climb up the hut to see the dim interior. This house is complete with household tools like wooden utensils and different kinds of baskets, including a takba, a kind of woven backpack used by Ifugao hunters. It has a protective cover of tiered fiber that keeps both the hunter’s shoulder and the basket’s contents dry during a sudden rainfall.
The Ifugao hut is a preview of the anthropological and archeological artifacts that await visitors at the third floor galleries. At the Pinagmulan Gallery, information on the origin of the Philippine islands and the Filipino people are presented in large dioramas.
These dioramas represent fossil-rich Cagayan Valley in Northern Luzon and the Tabon and the Duyong Caves in Palawan. Displayed in one corner of the gallery is the skull cap of the earliest known human inhabitant in the Philippines discovered in Tabon Cave. Gamma ray dating indicated the Tabon skull cap to be 16,500 years old.
Next door is the Archeological Treasures Gallery. This dimly-lit and almost claustrophobic gallery has been transformed to look like a burial cave where the secondary burial jars on display were excavated.
Secondary burial jars reveal the practice of early Filipino of exhuming the bones of the dead and storing them in earthenware. These burial jars were placed inside caves such as in Ayub Cave in Maitum Saranggani Province.
The Maitum burial jars were dated to the 5BC to 370 AD. These anthromorphic potteries have lids that were carved as human heads with distinct facial features. Each of the jars are said to be a representative of the deceased, making each jar unique.
Some of the jars are plain while others have arms and breast applied on the body of the earthenware.
The centerpiece of this gallery is the Manuggul Jar, an impressive burial jar with two human figures on a boat carved on its lid. It was excavated from a Neolitic burial site in Manuggul Cave of Lipuun, Palawan. Burial jars such as this pre-colonial artwork proves the belief of the early Filipinos in the afterlife.
The next exhibit hall is the Kinahinantnan Gallery. The labyrinth-like hall is divided into sections. Each section reveals the diverse cultural treasures beginning with Laguna Copperplate. This thin, blackened piece of metal, inscribed with strange script was found by a man dredging for sand in the mouth of Lumban River. He sold it to an antique dealer, who in turn sold it to the National Museum of the Philippine.
The Dutch ethnographer Antoon Postma discovered that the text engraved on the artifact was Kavi, a language similar to Sanskrit, Old Tagalog, Old Javanese, and Old Malay mixed together. The text on the copperplate was deciphered as an early legal document issued to clear a person by the name of Namwaran and his clan of a debt he had incurred.
On same area is the Calatagan Pot with still undermined inscriptions around its shoulders. Found in the 1960s in Calatagan, Batangas, this earthenware was found together with 15th century Thai and Chinese ceramics.
The museum’s collection in this exhibit hall is so massive that first time visitors can miss the artifacts from the various cultural communities such as the ulo di kang, an Ifugao headdress made from the beak of a hornbill collected by famous anthropologist Otley Beyer in 1914.
Also easy to miss are the Bakuta, a waterproof Mandaya basket from Davao Oriental, a Mandaya winged dagger, and the satwaran of the Maranaos.
Interesting display are the Funerary art of the Sama, the Moroines mask from Marinduque, the Sarimanok, the Borak, the grand Kumintang with its gongs. The tour can be overwhelming. But there is more to explore on the second floor.
The second floor galleries have an impressive collection of artifacts recovered through underwater archeology.
While majority of the artifact displayed here were from the ill-fated 16th century Spanish galleon San Diego, the exhibit begins with a display of earthenware and tradeware from Southeast Asia leading to the Spanish colonial section with its santos, altar furnishings, and ecclesiastical silver.
In this exhibit hall, the museum showcases the most incredible selection of Chinese junk artifacts recovered from the Palawan seas.
Displayed in glass and wooden boxes are jars from Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam, plates and jarlets from China.
More porcelain and earthenware are displayed in the other rooms including a basket-shaped oil lamp and the two hundred stoneware jars used for storing water and preserving food such as beef in brine and salted fish.
These artifacts were retrieved from the San Diego, which sank near Fortune Island in Batangas in a sea battle against a Dutch flotilla commandered by Admiral Oliver van Noort.
But the more interesting artifacts are the ammunitions, navigational instruments and other artifacts retrieved from the wreck, including a gold seal believed to be owned by Antonio de Morga. These artifacts tell the story about the ill-fated San Diego.
According to historical records, the galleon was built in Cebu as the San Antonio -a merchant galleon. It was converted it into a flagship by Antonio de Morga. When it was spotted by the Dutch flagship Mauritius, it was overloaded with people and cargo. The two ships engaged in a battle. The San Diego sank, most likely because it was hurriedly prepared for battle and also due to de Morga’s incompetence.
Swords, metal helmets, and the 14 bronze cannons were recovered from the wreck. Each lead ball weigh 2 to 16 pounds. They are important artifacts since they were considered state-of-the-art artillery available in the Philippines then.
Also retrieved from the wreck are astrolabes, or astronomical rings used by navigators and astrologers for locating the position of stars, determining the time of day, and measuring the depths of the ocean.
Most astrolabes from nautical museums around the world are usually replicas. Ours, at the Museum of the Filipino People is an original.