Ancestral Gold on the Upper East Side Exhibitions

| 28 Sep 2015 | 04:37

It’s the purest and most malleable material on the planet. The Philippines, an archipelago of 7,000-plus islands situated between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, boasts the world’s second-largest deposit of the precious metal. What is less known is that the island country’s pre-colonial culture harnessed the resource and produced extremely sophisticated objects for adornment, ritualistic purposes and trade, centuries before the Spanish arrived, settled and converted the native population in the 1500s.

With a focus on creativity in the 10th to the 13th centuries in “lost” kingdoms located in the Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao island groups, “Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms” (through January 3) showcases some 120 dazzling artifacts, the majority on loan from the Ayala Museum in Metro Manila and the Central Bank of the Philippines. Most have never traveled outside the country.

Much of this spectacular cache was only discovered in the last half century. The most celebrated find, and a highlight of the current exhibit, was an accidental one in a hamlet in the Surigao del Sur province in northeastern Mindanao. On April 27, 1981, Berto Morales was operating a motorized scraper as part of a government irrigation project when a worker alerted him to a metal helmet obstructing his path.

Closer inspection revealed that the glistening helmet was crafted from gold. Morales spent the rest of the day in recovery mode, unearthing 22 pounds of ancient gold jewelry. The items retrieved on that day, along with subsequent finds in the vicinity by treasure hunters, became known as the Surigao Treasure. The fruits of American-led excavations earlier that year around present-day Butuan City in Mindanao are also featured here.

As a short film narrates at the entrance to the show, the islands’ pre-colonial, indigenous peoples belonged to a highly stratified society. The lustrous necklaces, earrings, bangles, sashes, diadems, ceremonial weapons, pectorals, chastity belts and tiny tweezer on display were the accoutrements of an elite, ruling class. The objects were status markers, denoting an owner’s wealth, power and prestige.

And as we learn by the end of the exhibit, these pre-Hispanic inhabitants not only prized gold in life but also prized it in death: they were buried with their gold—“to ensure a cordial welcome” to the afterlife—and even crafted items to protect them on their journey, such as face masks and “orifice covers” for the eyes, nose and lips. The latter were crafted in situ, as part of funerary rites.

Written records documenting this culturally rich, economically prosperous period in Philippine history are scarce. But as co-curator Florina Capistrano-Baker writes in the catalog, the lack of a strong historical record “endows the objects with even greater significance as signposts to mapping forgotten cultures.” A study of the treasures points to the influence of Chinese export ceramics and Indonesian arts, tangible evidence of trading activity with China and Southeast Asia.

Case in point: “Openwork vessel,” ca. 10th -13th century, a delicate cutwork container from the Surigao Treasure trove, with a phoenix on one side and a kilin (a hooved animal) on the other, two Chinese mythical creatures that appear frequently on trade pottery. But as the curators note in the catalog, “the forms and styles of the majority of these works developed locally,” a testament to the native culture’s highly developed metalworking and goldsmithing traditions.

Advanced techniques such as filigree, granulation and repoussé (hammering on the reverse side to create a raised design on the front) are showcased in item after item—from the smallest cord weight (used to weigh down and decorate cord waistbands) to the mammoth, 10-pound ceremonial sash (or caste cord) with pronged finial that looks like a golden serpent and once was embellished with a ruby. “We’re actually still looking for the ruby cabochon that used to be there,” co-curator Capistrano-Baker said to laughs from the audience at a recent lecture. “[It] might be in someone’s necklace, somewhere.”

Magnifying glasses are available for close-ups of the precious objects, which notably include necklaces fashioned from “gear beads”—beads that neatly interlock. The largest known example is presented here, Capistrano-Baker said, adding that “gold chains [were] among the most valued forms of wealth. The number and quality of neck chains signified one’s wealth and status.”

Another eye-catcher is a gleaming vessel in the form of a kinnari, a creature from Indian mythology that is part “celestial female,” part bird. It’s the show’s signature image and boasts exquisite detail, including a hair bun and hair part, though its precise function remains unclear. The object is paired with a bronze kinnari vessel-lamp from Java, suggesting cross-pollination and illustrating the spread of Hindu and Buddhist religions to Southeast Asia—though until now scholars have typically thought the Philippines were bypassed, the curator said.

“It is like our King Tut,” a co-chair of the Philippine Gold Benefit Committee recently enthused about the collection.

Get ready.