University of Guam Archaeological Field School in Cebu, Philippines

The University of Guam and the University of San Carlos will be collaborating for this summer’s archaeological field school. Here below is the post from the University of Guam webpage:


The University of Guam, in collaboration with the Archaeological Studies Program-University of the Philippines, the San Carlos University, and the National Museum of the Philippines, is offering a summer archaeological field school. The field school will provide participants intensive training in archaeological site excavation, mapping, and artifact analysis and interpretation as well as training in landscape analysis. The course is open to undergraduate and graduate students from any university, who will earn 6 University of Guam credits. The project is co-directed by Dr. Stephen Acabado, Assistant Professor, University of Guam, Dr. John Peterson, Associate Professor, University of Guam, Dr. Grace Barretto-Tesoro, Associate Professor, Archaeological Studies Program, University of the Philippines, and Prof. Jojo Bersales, University of San Carlos Kabilin Heritage Studies Center. Dr. Acabado and Dr. Peterson will serve as the UOG Instructors of Record.

Field School Description

Students will learn archaeological field techniques by working in real field conditions, working with students and staff from the USA, the Philippines, and the Luce Asian Archaeology Program Fellows of the Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii-Manoa. The focus of the project is twofold: to document the impact of Spanish colonization on indigenous lifeways (particularly, forced resettlement or reduccion) and early Holocene sea-level changes in the Island of Cebu.  Cebu was the first seat of the Spanish colonial government in the Philippines.  An archaeological survey in 2002 reports that, “Field visits were conducted to additional locales and the 17th or early 18th century visita of Punta Ysabel was found near San Remigio, Cebu. This site will provide an important comparison with the 1599 visita of Salug in Carcar.”

With the longest shoreline in the Island of Cebu and adjacent to other islands in the Philippine Archipelago, ancient San Remegio inhabitants exploited both marine and terrestrial resources.  Previous archaeological work in other parts of the island suggests that Cebu Islanders were contributors to an extensive trade network throughout the islands of the Central Philippines.

Students will learn:

* use of GPS in field survey

* identifying artifacts and ecofacts

* identifying features and sites

* documenting archaeological sites

* the landscape archaeology approach

* site survey techniques

* soil classification and description

* artifacts, feature and site sketching

* field analysis of common artifacts types

* scientific field photography

* field map-making using plane table and total station

* lab and cataloging methods


The UOG Summer 2011 Archaeological Field School will take place in the town of San Remegio, Cebu, Philippines. The town is located in the northwestern part of the Island, about 2-3 hours drive from Cebu City.


Field school participants should schedule to arrive in Manila by May 30, 2010.  We will have pre-excavation orientation as well as lectures on Philippine and Island Southeast Asian archaeology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman May 31-June 1.  Participants will also visit various Manila museums during this period. On June 2, we will travel to Cebu by plane, and from Cebu City airport to San Remegio by van.

We will return to Manila via plane by about June 30th, to catch your flight home by July 2nd.

Course Credits
US-based students will receive 6 college credits:
AN492: Archaeological Field Techniques

Costs and Expenses

Tentative course fees are $3,500.00, which include all tuition, food, housing and travel within the Philippines. The participant is responsible for travel to and from the Philippines (about $1100-$1500 from the US), visa fees, health insurance and personal cash.


Archaeological work involves physical work in the outdoors. You should be aware that conditions in the field are different than those you experience in your home or college town. You will be required to engage in moderate to rigorous climbs. Please bring appropriate footwear and clothing to protect yourself. If you have any concerns, discuss them with your doctor and/or project director as appropriate.


The UOG Cebu Archaeological Field School involves an application process. Students are asked to complete an application form and one (1) recommendation letter by March 15, 2011. Acceptance notifications will be sent by April 15, 2011.


The UOG Cebu Archaeological Field School involves an application process. Students are asked to complete an application form and one (1) recommendation letter by March 15, 2011. Acceptance notifications will be sent by April 15, 2011.
For more information:
Dr. Stephen Acabado
University of Guam
Anthropology Program
Ph: 671-735-2809

Looking into Visayan Sorcery and Witchcraft

This is a section of a paper I wrote in 2004 for the Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. In this paper, I argued for the significance of the power of the belief in the aswang (witch) as a possible causal force in some indigenous mortuary behavior (in lieu of the automatic labeling of these evidences as products of rank and warfare). This excerpt discusses sorcery and witchcraft in the Visayas region and how this might help explain the presence of a prehispanic mass grave (before 1500s).


In the Philippines, particularly in the Visayas or Central Philippines region (where Tanjay is located), a belief in the inherent evil of witches has been and is prevalent. Scott (1995) in his study of Spanish contact period Philippine societies, identified various witch-prototypes in the Visayas. According to Scott, the aswang were “flesh-eaters who devoured the liver like a slow cancer…(and) also ate the flesh of corpses, disinterring them if not well-guarded or actually causing them to disappear in the plain sight of mourners at a wake” (Scott 1995: 81). Spanish lexicons listed alok, balbal, kakag, oko, onglo, and wakwak as synonyms of aswang. Today witches are believed to have a “carnivorous habit” (Arens 1971: 97) and prey on the sick, the dead, infants, and pregnant women (Arens 1971, Villegas 1968). Liver complaints are still attributed to the appetite of witches.

Villegas (1968: 227-230) notes that, in the coastal towns of the Waray in eastern Leyte, witches are evil persons with preternatural powers but are indistinguishable from others in the community. There, witches fall into three groups: tangso-tangso, nalakat, and managhilaw. The tangso-tangso is akin to the manananggal of the Tagalog in that the witch torso separates from the rest of the body and flies out to seek a victim. The nalakat, on the other hand, “has to walk to where its victim is…and has the power to transform itself into any animal it chooses,” while the managhilaw “attacks even people in the best of health and sucks their blood” in contrast to that of the other types of witches who prey only on the sick (Villegas 1968: 227).

Aside from this predatory behavior, witches are also believed to metamorphose from a normal person during daytime into a witch at night. During nighttime, they are believed to have reddish eyes that become sharp and penetrating, allowing them to see into the womb of a pregnant mother. Witches have razor-sharp teeth and long, pointed fingernails. The hair is purportedly brittle, straight, and spreading while the body is thin and slippery so as to be able to fly or crawl through the smallest opening. Saliva drools from the mouth. They have keen hearing, sight, and smell (Arens 1971, Villegas 1968).

One of Arens’s informants remarked that witches have existed since “time immemorial” (Arens 1971: 95). Arens suggested that the first witches were “cave spirits,” for in one of his interviews, he learned that people believe one “automatically” becomes a witch if he or she “finds a bottle with an inverted plant” inside a cave during Lent. But if a person finds a bottle with a plant positioned in a natural way, with its roots at the bottom of the bottle and the leaves at the top, then that person will become a good tambalan (traditional healer).

Lieban (1960: 128) stressed that Cebuano witchcraft can be transmitted either through heredity or transference. Among the Waray, a “germ” or kagaw of witchhood can supposedly be transferred to another through cold food, physical contact, or by blowing on another person’s alimpoporo (crown of the head) (Villegas 1968). The “monster” in the witch’s stomach can relocate to another person’s body if that person is present at the witch’s deathbed (Arens 1971).

Arens and Villegas noted that in Waray culture the process of becoming a witch goes through stages. At first, the kagaw or “germ” incubates in the newly bewitched person’s stomach. The witch-apprentice begins to feel a pain in the kapoy-kapoy or sorok-sorok (diaphragm). A thick mass of blood develops which gradually assumes the appearance of a pikoy (parrot). In a month, the victim then develops an appetite for raw chicken. The witch teaches the victim how to fly and search for prospective prey. Once the witch-apprentice learns all the necessary knowledge, the process cannot be reversed.

The ethnographic accounts suggest that witches are considered to be malignantly evil. Lieban (1967) noted that the supernatural powers of witches are considered to be “rooted in the individual, a constitutional resource” in contrast to sorcerers whose “powers” are taken from “resources outside of the individual,” such as magical procedures and spirit guides. He writes:

Reaction to someone believed to be an aswang is apt to be more intense and hostile due to the extremely aberrant characteristics ascribed to this type of witch, and the fact that the aswang is more likely to be conceived as inherently evil…(Lieban 1967: 75).

The aswang resembles some witches elsewhere whose behavior in certain respects antithesizes or inverts normal behavior in the societies where they are found (Lieban 1967: 77).

Violent death is not the monopoly of warfare. Other causal dimensions of violent death are found in historic accounts. Persecution of suspected witches has been documented as a cause for violent death in many societies. For the Philippines, Anima noted that “witchcraft…has a long, continuous history of persecution for its practitioners…. Witch-suspects were often subjected to drowning tests to determine the validity of the witch-hunter’s suspicions” (Anima 1978: 2).

One lynching incident in Carigara, Leyte, as recounted by Ramos, illustrates one community reaction to those suspected of witchcraft.

Han olitawo pa ako may-ada wakwak didto ha Cogon an ngaran he Mara. Damo an nasering nga hi Mara in para wakwak han mga bag-o nga anakan didto hadto nga lugar. Usa ka adlaw may ada bag-o nga anakan nga namatay kay guin wakwak kono ni Mara. Guinhigot ha barsa ngan iguin pasaog han carabao hasta nga namatay. An mga taga baryo diri na kontento salet era guin labay ngadto ha lunayan han kabao…

When I was still single there was a wakwak in Cogon whose name was Mara. Many said that Mara was the cause of the death of many mothers who had newly given birth there. One day a mother had been wakwaked by Mara (her blood sucked out). The barrio folks went to the house of Mara and tied him and mounted his body on [or behind?] a sled and had a carabao pull him over rocky ground. The barrio people were not yet content so they dumped him into the mud where the carabaos wallowed… (Ramos 1971: 56-57).

Another incident was recorded by Lieban (1960: 133) where violence was perpetrated against those suspected of sorcery. He said that “a man suspected of sorcery was shot at in a community near Sibulan” and, in the course of his study, a newspaper reported that a “woman suspected of performing sorcery had been killed and her husband and children injured when men threw a homemade explosive into her house because she was believed to have caused the illness of a son of one of the men.”

Recently, another news item appeared in the Visayan Daily Star (Gomez 2003) that recounted the beheading of a married elderly couple in Sitio Si-alay, barangay Bulata, Cauayan town in Negros Occidental. The perpetrators (three members of the same community) believed that the couple were aswang. As one of the men beheaded the female witch-suspect, he purportedly saw the severed body “stand up before falling down.” He then rushed to the couple’s kitchen to get some ashes and rubbed the ashes and some salt on the stump of her severed head to “prevent it from reconnecting with the body.” The men then hacked the other witch-suspect (i.e., the husband) and proceeded to sever the head from the body. They planned to bury the heads in a nearby river to prevent them from rejoining the bodies. Interestingly, the perpetrators believed that “they did the right thing and saved the lives of others. That is why they did not attempt to flee from their barangay.”
Arens’s informants noted that “aswangs…do not live long because all the people are after their necks.” Some of the aswangs have been “killed and the rest moved away to far-away places where they are not known.” To kill a witch, one should chant certain prayers and stab the witch in the back with a sharpened length of bamboo. Arens was told that the aswang has to be slashed into pieces. If the witch transforms itself into an animal, the animal should be severed into two and the two halves placed in the distant opposite reaches of a river (Arens 1971: 101-102).

Scott wrote, if Visayans “became convinced that a death had been caused by one of their townmates who was such a creature, he or she was put to death – along with their whole families if the victim had been a datu” (emphasis mine). The stark fear of witches was also manifested in the burial of the datu after which a “slave called dayo was stationed at a datu’s tomb for the rest of his life to guard against robbers or aswang, with the right to feed himself off anybody’s field” (Scott 1995: 90-91).

In the Visayas, it has been shown that the power of witches reside within the individual and not outside, say for example in another supernatural being. Although “witchhood” may have originated from the “cave spirits,” it is thought to be transmitted usually along kinship lines—the “germs” or kagaw being contagious. Scott, in his rendition of contact period Visayan culture, pointed out the possibility that families of suspected witches were put to death together with the witch-suspect. Moreover, an aswang could not simply be killed with bare hands but certain weapons ascribed with special powers had to be used, usually metal knives or bamboo spikes. In contemporary Cebuano culture, the aswang motif is not simply an individual “affliction” but rather a family trait. In other words, the community generally views witchcraft as transmittable along kinship lines (among kaliwat sa aswang, roughly translated as “clan of witches”). For example, Arens (1971: 103), to account for how contemporary witches are treated, noted that:

The life of a suspected witch and her [or his] family is made difficult by the constant suspicion of the people. The “witch” is shunned and sometimes publicly embarrassed. Food and delicacies sent from her kitchen out of hospitality are thrown away or fed to the dogs. Endless gossip circulates about horrible and inhuman ways such as feasting on a dead man’s body which some will claim to have seen her doing the night before. The family members are the targets of many sarcastic and cutting remarks. The pretty daughters stay unmarried because young gentlemen are afraid to marry them.

In Philippine folklore, the aswang is capable of returning from the dead with a vengeance (Ramos 1971). It can be warded off only by using sacralized objects and incantations (Villegas 1968, Scheans and Hutterer 1970, Arens 1971).

Given the very malevolent image of witches in the Visayan mind, witches probably even during the pre-Spanish period were victims of persecution. They very likely suffered social derision and worse – their persecution may have led to mass killings.

As presented above, witchcraft persecution is found in historical as well as ethnographic accounts in the Visayas. There is therefore a compelling reason to reassess Junker’s interpretation of the Tanjay mass grave in view of the ambiguity of the causality of violent death in the archaeological record of protohistoric times–especially with Scott’s discovery of the Visayan practice of the massacre of witch-suspects’ families.

Hugo Chavez and the Skeleton of Bolivar

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela ordered the exhumation of the remains of Simon Bolivar, Latin America’s liberator, in order to put an end to the speculation surrounding the hero’s death. While historians are generally in agreement that Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, others maintained that the hero died of unintentional arsenic poisoning (since this was the standard medical treatment during his time).

Dr. Paul Auwaerter in a University of Maryland Conference argued that  death due to tuberculosis cannot explain Bolivar’s final six months. Auwaerter said that the hero did not exhibit symptoms of TB and may have had arsenic-induced bacterial infection. Dr. Auwaerter concluded that Bolivar “died of chronic arsenic poisoning that led to a serious respiratory illness…and most of the signs and symptoms point to slow, chronic poisoning, the kind that might result from drinking contaminated water.”

Chavez however is convinced that Bolivar might have been murdered, a suspicion bolstered by the many attempts on the life of the most illustrious Latin American military figure. One of the failed assassination plots was in September 1828, a month after Bolivar installed himself dictator of Gran Colombia (the short-lived republic that encompassed a great part of South and Central America). Bolivar narrowly escaped the attempt through the help of his lover, Manuela Saenz.

“They killed him. Here in my heart for years I’ve had the conviction that Bolivar didn’t die of tuberculosis,” Chavez said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to prove it, but I think they assassinated Bolivar.”

Death by Arsenic

The examination of chronic arsenic poisoning is a well-established method in paleopathology. The Paleopathology Laboratory of the Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, has studied the long-term exposure to arsenic of a Chilean pre-Columban population. The mummies showed arsenic lesions on their internal organs. The nails, ribs, hairs, and skin also exhibited high concentrations of the compound.

In a similar vein, Boston and Ariaza (2009) examined the human remains of the Chinchorro Culture (5000 BP) in the Atacama desert coast of Chile, they suggested that the endemic presence of arsenic may have had a role in the mummification practice of the Chinchorros. To ascertain this, they examined teratogenic arsenic lesions (i.e., cleft palate, polydactyly, syndactyly, spina bifida, club foot, eye malformations, and hip joint dislocation), which are indicative of arsenic poisoning when found together. Although they only found spina bifida, they reported that the “presence of spina bifida in the three valleys suggests a genetic-environmental interplay within the populations.”

I imagine Auwaeter et al conducted a similar assessment to forward the arsenic poisoning hypothesis. Next step is the Hugo Chavez-commissioned DNA testing on Bolivar’s exhumed remains. This is the same procedure that put an end to the controversy surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. Bonaparte, once thought to have been poisoned by his prison guards, was found to have died of other causes (still up in debate) and not from arsenic poisoning.

Bolivar’s Skeleton

That the exhumation is ideologically-driven is not a secret. Chavez refers to his ideology as Bolivarianismo which advocates for participatory democracy, socialism, and Latin American unity. This is also a homage to the military figure who attempted to unite the entire Latin America against Spanish colonization. It comes as no surprise therefore to see Chavez beaming with pride when Simon Bolivar’s remains were exposed. He exclaimed, “Viva Bolivar! It’s not a skeleton. It’s the Great Bolivar, who has returned…Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air … You awake every hundred years when the people awaken. I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance.”

This was not the first time however that leaders used the past to serve the political purposes of the present. Anthropology, archaeology in particular, is rife with examples that exploit the past for a nationalist project. The eminent archaeologist, Bruce Trigger, noted that “Political unrest, national crises, and rapid economic and social change frequently stimulate interests in a nation’s past, which often is romantically represented as having been more stable than the present and therefore as having more valuable lessons to teach the modern times.”

This is especially true in many places with strong nationalist movements. Archaeologists in Nazi Germany, for example, conducted excavations to prove that Germany was the origin of all civilizations. In the years of Mao Zedong’s rule in China, archaeology was encouraged as long as it supports the government’s theory of a linear evolutionary progression from “primitive promiscuous bands via matrilinearity to patrilinearity; from Savagery, Barbarism, Feudal Society to Civilization and so on–stages first proposed by Lewis Henry Morgan, borrowed by Engels, and systematized in the Soviet Union” (Glover, 2006).

The case of Bolivar’s exhumation is thus not an exemption. The team of Spanish and Venezuelan scientists’ study results might be scientifically neutral and valid in the end. They might even contradict Chavez. But that is not the point. Bolivar’s bones are not just a bunch of arsenic-drenched tissues. This is not just about Bolivar anymore.

A Visit to a Taino Archaeological Park

We went on an hour and a half drive to the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park in Utuado, located in the central cordilleras of Puerto Rico. The place is considered as the most important Taino Culture archaeological site in the Caribbean.

The Tainos, pre-Columban settlers of the Greater Antilles, were seafarers and farmers who had an elaborate culture centered on the worship of gods, spirits, and ancestors called cemis.  The primary god, Yucahu, is the god of agriculture, cassava (staple food of the Tainos), and the seas. This deity is believed to reside in the mountains of El Yunque, a dense rainforest region in Puerto Rico. Yucahu’s evil brother, Huracan, is responsible for worldly calamities, such as earthquakes, storms, and, yes, hurricanes (etymology comes from Huracan).

Where are the Tainos?

The strategic importance of Puerto Rico to colonial Spain however led to the decimation of the native Taino population in the 18th century. Spanish-introduced diseases, colonial subjugation, slavery, and forced assimilation into the colonial plantation economy were the major  historical forces that led to the extinction of this indigenous group. Here’s a retelling of the Taino demise:

They committed group suicide as an escape, but it was mainly disease that decimated the Taínos so quickly. In 1516, only eight years later, there were so few Taínos left in the Caribbean that Father Bartolomé de las Casas won a “crown order” to free the Indians. In 1527, a small pox epidemic in Puerto Rico killed one third of the remaining Taíno population. In 1542, a Bishop was sent to Puerto Rico to inform the Indians of their “new” complete freedom.

Others however belie the extinction story, saying that the Tainos thrived in secrecy especially in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico. Dr. Lynne Guitar added that it may also be due to historical inaccuracies that led to the perpetuation of the “myth of Taino extinction”:

If a Spaniard and a Taína had a child who was raised in the city or a European-style town, spoke Castillian, was baptized Catholic, wore European clothes, received a European education, and “acted” Spanish—then he or she was listed as Spanish on the censuses.  If that same child lived in a yucayeque (Taíno village), spoke Taíno, practiced Taíno religious rituals, dressed as a Taíno, and acted Taíno, then he or she was listed on the censuses as Indian.  That’s confusing for modern scholars, but it was also confusing for the colonial-era census takers, who had to try to figure out how to categorize people when there were, as yet, no fixed standards.

The ball courts and the batey

Whether the Tainos survived colonization or not, the Caguana ceremonial place is an important archaeological site that allows us a glimpse into the world of the Tainos. The site is built around 1270 A.D., featuring 10 plazas of various sizes and 21 petroglyphs. Archaeologists said that this had been continuously occupied for more than 300 years up until around the start of the Spanish colonization. The central plazas were outlined with river stones and rocks–each rock carved with petroglyphs of cemis (i.e., Taino deities). The plazas were used for areitos (ceremonial dances) and a ball game called batey. It was in this similar plaza that a Taino cacique, Agueybana II, plotted to overthrow the Spanish conquistadores in 1511.

Spanish friars chronicled that the batey was played by two opposing teams using a rubber ball. Neck and elbow collars made from stone were also used by the players as a yoke (i.e. inferred from a similar ball court practice in Mesoamerica).

Game revivalists believe that each opposing team is composed of 12 players, each with a goalie that attempts to stop the ball from going to her/his team’s side. Like football, the ball or the batu cannot be touched by the hand but can be struck by the foot, hip, thigh, or any part of the body. The ball can also be bounced around the stone walls of the ball court. Although the game has recreational value, experts believe that the batey has an underlying religious and judicial significance as evidenced by the petroglyphs circling the ballcourt and its associated artifacts.

As we were about to leave the park, we surveyed the ceremonial site for the last time. With a 3-year old child in tow, we scanned the landscape trying to remember every bit of the place. The reconstructed Taino abode, the bohio, stands on the ceremonial place’s landscape. The expanse of the valley is encircled by karst hills of lush rainforest and giant ferns. In this small valley rests the rectangular ball courts of the Tainos.  Here, on this very earth, the Tainos tread the ground, breathed the same air, mystified by the unseen forces of nature, and probably hoped too for a better future for their children.

Fig. 1. Mujer de Caguana. This petroglyph is believed to be a fertility figure or an ancestor-figure from a powerful family.

Fig. 2. A Cemi. Representation of a Taino Deity.

Fig.3. Stone Rings. Once thought to be associated with the ball game, they are now considered as of unknown use. Some scholars speculate that they were distinctive symbols of clans.

Fig. 4. Elbow Stone. Its scarcity in archaeological sites indicate that this might have been used in ritual contexts.

Other photos of the visit: us, ball courts, monoliths, petroglyphs, etc.

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Where are the Potsherds? The Kids Got Them.

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Schiffer emphasized the importance of the study of formation processes to better understand people-object interactions through time. In his book, natural and cultural processes (n-transforms and c-transforms as he called them) should be understood if we were to interpret the archaeological record.

The natural processes (or n-transforms) include weathering, erosion, natural disasters, chemical and biotic agents which structures the archaeological deposit. These natural processes need to be understood well because this has a bearing on the state of the archaeological record. For example, Schiffer mentioned that warmer and humid temperatures are conducive to bacterial and fungi growth, thus making certain artifacts in these contexts disintegrate faster.

C-transforms are transformations in the archaeological record brought about by human action. Examples of c-transforms are the following: discarding, recycling, heirlooms, and deliberate and accidental destruction. Some archaeologists, like William Walker, studied ceremonial trash to follow the material remains of religious behavior, suggesting that votive artifacts go through a different life history.

For this blogpost, I will be showing pictures of a children’s game that could perhaps be the reason why potsherds are seldom seen in some sites (OK, potsherds are the most visible of all artifacts. But please bear with me and hear my story on how kids may have reduced potsherd frequency in the archaeological record). I played this game as a kid with other children from the neighborhood (and so did my parents, grandparents, and perhaps several generations before). Until now, this nail-shining game is still played in some parts of my town.

The game starts with the collection of potsherds from the field. Usually, redder potsherds are preferred more because of the orange tinge it leaves on the nails. These sherds are then grounded to fine dust by pounding with a heavier rock. The small pile of finely grounded earth are then rubbed on the nails until it leaves a distinctive shine. This game can go on and on for several months in various households in Leyte. So, the next time Philippine archaeologists ask where the potsherds are, tell them the kids got to them first.

Below are photos of my cousins’ children playing the same game we played as kids:

Step 1. It starts with a broken pot and nail-conscious kids.

2. Pounding the Potsherd to Pieces

3. More pounding

4. Grinding to get the fine earth (used for rubbing on the nails)

5. After the rubbing, nice shiny nails.

6. Look! Shiny Happy Nails!

Walker, W. (1995). Ceremonial Trash? In Expanding Archaeology, edited by J. Skibo, W.H.. Walker, and A.E. Nielsen, pp. 67–79.

On Anthropology Field Schools

In Philippine anthropology departments, the start of April heralds the beginning of field schools. This is the time when professors drag their students away from the stuffy confines of the classroom and push them into the grime and sweat of fieldwork. For at least one month, students scrape  the earth until callouses grow on their palms and the tedious job of accessioning artifacts lulls them to sleep. The nights are spent on heated anthropological discussions up until the wee hours, sometimes over bottles of beer and karaoke blaring in the background.

One of the best training ground for the basics of archaeology is the Boljoon Archaeological Field School of Prof. Jobers Bersales of the University of San Carlos. In here, students are given a well-rounded training in archaeological excavation techniques and theory while also in a very scenic place. The site is right at the yard of a Spanish-era church with the entrance facing the blue seas of Cebu Strait. A fortress of  hills and cliffs with sparse vegetation envelops the area and, at its highest point, a sentry box made of coral rocks lies in decay. As the field school’s ex-bone guy and field hand, I had the chance to see the artifacts closely. We were able to recover interesting gold specimen, ceramics, precious stone beads, potteries, among other things. One of the exciting burial finds were two pieces of needle-shaped animal shell(?) with deliberate puncture holes at its base. This burial ornament was located on top of the pelvic region of a male individual. We also noticed  skull moulding and teeth filing practices in many of the buried individuals.

One of my memorable field school moments was in Joyce Well, New Mexico, located in that boot heel-shaped corner of this southwest state. We camped there for six weeks in the desert wilderness, amidst the purring of mountain lions and the scampering of roadrunners. Dr. William H. Walker, the field school director, armed us with machetes in case a wayward cat goes inside our tents (I think the purpose was mostly psychological than anything else. He could just have given us rosary beads against this very efficient ambush predators). Working on the Casas Grandes-type ball courts and pueblos, Walker and the team of field archaeologists helped students connect archaeological theory with the drudgery of digging. Walker would lie down flat on his belly next to your excavation pit and reveal the story of the scraped earth. He would talk endlessly about formation processes, the paleoenvironment of the site, the people’s religion, technology, sports, etc. that you could visualize the whole culture right before your eyes. Walker could also turn an ordinary trowel into a surgeon’s scalpel, deftly slicing the contours of the soil, exposing the artifact for removal and documentation.

Resting in the middle of a night trek

Another nice field memory was the 2006 primatological field school I co-organized (with Carla Escabi) in Bohol. Two primate species were observed: Philippine tarsiers (Tarsius syrichta) and Philippine macaques (Macaca fascicularis). The behavior, ecology and conservation of these species were the main topics for the training.  Although macaques are not endangered, we focused on them for animal identification exercises and the recording of animal behaviors because of their size.  We followed the format from other field schools, such as the La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica.

For the tarsiers, we  did daytime and nocturnal observational treks in the forests of Corella, Bohol. We found a pregnant female and a (possibly) mating couple seeking refuge under a clump of leaves in one of our day treks.  This couple was found no more than 6 inches from each other (which we found surprising since tarsiers are considered solitary in the literature).  Though they appear sluggish during daytime, tarsiers can leap from one branch to the next in a flash at night. They are so fast and small that it is impossible to follow them through the thicket. One time, we lay down underneath a tarsier sleeping site for hours until it woke up. At first, the primate stretched its long ankle bones and elongated its body as if it were doing a vertical push-up. Then the tarsier licked the tufts of hair at both sides of its shoulder and then the knees. Though we stayed so silent, its bat-like ears perked up like small satellite disks pointing in our direction. Rotating its head towards us, the tarsier stared for a moment with those moon-shaped eyes (by the way, each eye is bigger than its brain) and, in a split second, jumped three meters to the next branch.

mother and infant tarsier

We followed the tarsier for 30 minutes but its speed and agility were too much for non-vertical leapers like us.

What I like best about field schools is the learning opportunity students get in doing anthropology. While book knowledge is important, being on the field intensifies anthropological curiosity and interest. With all the discussions, work, and the general anthro-conducive atmosphere, students get to explore research questions and dream about what they could be in the future. I thus encourage everyone to head on to the nearest anthropology department and inquire about joining field schools.  The experience is really worth the time.

Archie Tiauzon: Searching for the Paleolithic Visayas

Archie taking a break

This post is an interview on a colleague of mine, Archie Tiauzon, who has been on the hunt for evidences of Paleolithic occupation in the Central Philippine region. He taught in the History Department of the University of San Carlos in the early 2000s and, later, pursued graduate studies in the Archaeological Studies Program of UP Dilliman. At present, he is in France completing the course requirements for a degree in Quartenary and Prehistory.

He is one of the very few archaeologists interested in the Pleistocene period in the Philippines. Contrary to what leading archaeologists say, Archie believes that Pleistocene deposits can be found in  Central Philippines.

“Who knows Homo floresiensis or Homo erectus may have visited the Central Philippine islands at some point,” he contends.

That’s a stubborn guy right there. I would never doubt the zeal and commitment of Archie because I have seen him work in the field. He is a consummate fieldworker and “digger.” He traversed steep mountains and hills in search of Paleolithic artifacts. He navigated cliffs to reach pristine caves that, he believes, are potential occupation sites. Many times, he was accosted by the local police on suspicion that he was a communist guerilla and, luckily, never spent a day in prison. In archaeological excavations, he is tireless and analytical, scraping every layer of earth to reveal the Philippine past.

Only time could really tell if Archie is right. So, here is my interview with Archie Tiauzon, great guy, consummate believer, and future discoverer of the Paleolithic Visayas:

Callao Cave

Bonn: What got you started in archaeology?

Archie: It started 10 years ago when John Peterson and I did an archaeological survey in the town of Alegria, located in the southwest coast of Cebu. We went inside the cave and encountered a pile of human bones associated with rich archaeological deposits (comprising earthenware sherds with elaborate designs).  The morphology and designs of the ceramics indicated that they were Iron Age artifacts.  It was a very important discovery because it showed the complex mortuary practices carried out by the inhabitants of Alegria two thousand years ago.

Bonn: How was it working with John Peterson?

Archie: John Peterson and I have a special bond. First of all, he is my mentor. Dr. John Peterson introduced me to an archaeological landscape survey in Alegria and taught me how to record a site. That was the turning point that inspired me to be an archaeologist. I am very thankful for his encouragement and ideas. He is very supportive. In fact, he financially supported me when I was doing my Masters course in UP Diliman. He is a brilliant archaeologist and continues to inspire students who are dedicated in delving our past. He also treats me as his son.  I enjoy doing landscape archaeology with him. I’m looking forward to working with him in the future.

Bonn: What was your master’s thesis when you were at UP Dilliman?

Archie: My previous research thesis was about Landscape Archaeology. I did a case study in Alegria. The research is the first intensive archaeological landscape survey conducted in the southwest coast of Cebu. I chose this topic because the literature is silent on where to find archaeological sites in that region and also the time of human occupation is not scientifically recorded yet. Reconnaissance surveys and establishing baseline chronology of prehistoric sites are of prime importance in archaeology.

Bonn: How important were your findings to the understanding of Cebu prehistory (or Philippine prehistory in general)?

Archie: The results of my investigation showed the different episodes of prehistoric human occupation in the Alegria landscape, ranging from the Neolithic to the Protohistoric Period. It demonstrated the varying patterns of residence in each period. Neolithic settlements were mostly found on the interior zone in river valley platforms while Proto-historic people occupied the coastal landscape. I believe, based on the strength of the archaeological data, that the results proved that Neolithic occupation occurred in the southwest coast of Cebu similar to other Neolithic sites of Palawan, Batanes, and Cagayan Valley.

Bonn: I heard that you’re in France doing another Masters. What is this graduate study about? What thesis topic will you be investigating later on?

Archie: The second Masters course that I’m taking here in MNHN Paris, France is on Quaternary Prehistory. This covers all of the human past, mainly from Lower Pleistocene to Holocene. Such program allows one to specialize in Prehistory, may it be Paleoanthropology, Lithics, Paleoenvironment, Geoarchaeology, Geochronology and Zooarchaeology. I might be focusing on the stone tools from Indonesia. But I don’t know yet what period but, hopefully, it will be on tools associated with hominid sites.

Bonn: Some Philippine archaeologists doubt that you can find anything (before the Neolithic) in Central Philippines considering the geological age of the islands, what made you disagree with them?

Archie: Paleolithic occupation in the Central Philippines is a very promising thought. Saying that there is no Palaeolithic in this region is a very hasty judgment. Two years ago, we did a reconnaissance survey in Bohol Island together with some National Museum personnel and two of my French professors. We found that the cave sites in the area are potential occupation sites. We just need to dig deeper. Remember Homo floresiensis was found only 12m deep in Liang Bua. My French professors dug up to 14-16m deep on a cave site in Indonesia and the oldest date they got is 300,000 B.P. In terms of geological uplift, at least it is pretty safe to say that at the start of the Miocene period, major islands in Central Philippines were already brought to the surface. Thus, Pleistocene archaeological research in this area is really right on track.

Bonn: What are the prospects of learning more about our Paleolithic past?

Archie: We have to continue doing reconnaissance surveys and excavate deeper. Who knows Homo floresiensis or Homo erectus may have visited the Central Philippine islands at some point.

Bonn: Care to give us your final message for this blog?

Archie: Life is too short. (Laughs) Walk with me on the field and I guarantee you will enjoy it.