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Archaeologists return to Philippine site

THERE is growing evidence in support of a cultural tradition that binds the Philippines and the Northern Marianas.

Dr. Mike T. Carson and Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung are back in the Northern Philippines to explore further a site rich in shards of pottery suggestive of the earliest pottery-making tradition in the region.

Dr. Carson and Dr. Hung are in Magapit, Cagayan close to the border of Ilocos Norte, in the northern Philippines from March to April 2015.

Variety learned that the site which Dr. Carson referred to as the “Hilltop Site of Magapit,” is famous in world archaeology as a large mound of shell debris, in some places more than 5 meters high, containing abundant broken pottery that is highly distinctive and representative of the earliest pottery-making in the region.

Several research teams from Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines have worked there since the 1970s.

Dr. Carson told Variety yesterday, “Especially exciting right now is growing evidence that the highly distinctive decorated pottery of the Cagayan Valley was part of a special cultural tradition, found not only in the Cagayan Valley but also in other places.”

He said other sites in the northern through central Philippines have yielded pottery with similar decorations, although those sites have not yet been dated securely.

He also said that others with related pottery decorations have been found at later dates in Indonesia, approximately in the range of 1500 - 1000 BC.

“Perhaps most surprising, the dentate-stamped pottery tradition has been found at least as old as 1500 BC in the Mariana Islands,” said Dr. Carson.

Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung, a research fellow at the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the School of Culture, History, and Language of the Australian National University, has been conducting research in Cagayan Valley since 1996.

Dr. Hung is working at one of the largest shell mound sites there in partnership with the National Museum of the Philippines.

While in Cagayan, Dr. Hung is concentrating on the pottery decorative style while Dr. Carson is examining the ancient environmental setting of the hilltop and shell mound formation.

Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung, right, inspects a northern Philippine hilltop site with Philippine National Museum staff and members of the local community.Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung, right, inspects a northern Philippine hilltop site with Philippine National Museum staff and members of the local community.

Apart from their specialist contributions, Dr. Carson and Dr. Hung are working together on other aspects of the research.

They have so far been successful in maximizing the research findings at a number of sites of the Asia-Pacific region, and they hope to continue with more discoveries.

As to the latest study, Dr. Carson and Dr. Hung told Variety yesterday that the new research in the Cagayan Valley “is refining our view of an ancient period of Asia-Pacific explorations and cultural development, including connections with the first people ever to live in the remote islands of the Pacific.”

Dr. Hung said, “The Cagayan Valley is known for its dense concentration of habitation sites and shell middens, containing the oldest evidence of a sedentary village lifestyle, pottery-making, and other aspects of a revolutionary new lifestyle that emerged abruptly about 2200 - 2000 BC.”

Dr. Carson says, prior to that time, “people had been living comfortably in a hunter-gatherer economy and having a mode of life for more than 20,000 years in the Philippines and throughout Island Southeast Asia, so something dramatic must have happened about 2200 - 2000 BC that changed the course of human history in the region.”

Dr. Carson said these events can be viewed as “crucial” for understanding the first ever human settlement of the remote islands of the Pacific, so far evident in the Mariana Islands at least as early as 1500 BC.

As rich a site as Magapit is for archaeological study, it poses challenges to researchers.

“Despite the importance in archaeological research, the shell mounds of Magapit have posed some difficulties,” he said.

He said the radiocarbon dating so far has been problematic, “with unreliable radiocarbon dating of freshwater kabibi (Batissa sp.) shells, inter-mixing of the loose shellmound material, and other issues.”

He said there are additional questions that beg to be answered about what kinds of crops these people might have been growing.

“Other than the shells, what was the food supply of the people who developed a new village-based lifestyle instead of the age-old hunter-gatherer mode of life in the region?” he said.

The excavation of the Magapit site is underway as Philppine National Museum staffers work closely with residents. The excavation of the Magapit site is underway as Philppine National Museum staffers work closely with residents.

But new techniques in dating the samples will resolve some previously raised issues.

New radiocarbon techniques

With new radiocarbon dating techniques, the ability to analyze microscopic residue of ancient plant remains, and other scientific advances, Dr. Hung is excavating in a portion of the Hilltop Site in Magapit where other teams had not worked previously.

“The radiocarbon dating will be available after another two months of analysis, but already Dr. Hung and her team have identified a deep layer near the base of the shell mound containing a rare form of finely decorated pottery that Dr. Hung has found as well in other sites of the Cagayan Valley and dated securely at 2000 -1800 BC,” Dr. Carson said.

The decorations, he said, were made by a specialized technique of dentate-stamped designs, similar to a comb or tattooing needle, in combination with circle-stamped motifs and various zone-filling patters.

“These designs were highlighted by filling with white lime, called white lime infill by Dr. Hung and other archaeologists, thus creating a sharp white-on-red contrast over the brightly red-slipped pottery surface,” said Dr. Carson.

Variety learned that prior to Dr. Hung’s research, many archaeologists were not comfortable with the idea of such early dating of the dentate-stamped pottery in the Philippines or in the Mariana Islands.

“Previously, the dentate-stamped pottery tradition was known in the Pacific Islands as the Lapita pottery style of Island Melanesia and West Polynesia. Lapita sites mostly are dated about 1000 BC, much later than those sites in the Philippines or the Mariana Islands, although a few sites in the Bismarck Archipelago near New Guinea appear to be dated close to 1500 BC,” said Dr. Carson.

He noted that from the perspective of Pacific Islands archaeologists who are familiar with Lapita as the foundation of Pacific culture, the older dating in the Mariana Islands and in the Philippines has been controversial.

“The older dating would require a revision of what the Pacific-focus archaeologists have been thinking for the last 50+ years,” said Dr. Carson.

But now equipped with refined dating techniques, and undertaking larger excavations with more material, and a very broad geographic coverage of the Asia-Pacific region, Dr. Hung and her colleagues have been tracing the archaeological evidence on the “pottery trail” across the Asia-Pacific region.

“One of the key links in this pottery trail is the diagnostic dentate-stamped pottery tradition, now very confidently dated as old as 2000 - 1800 BC in the Philippines, at least as old as 1500 BC in the Mariana Islands, next about 1500 - 1350 BC spreading through Indonesia and as far as the Bismarck Archipelago east of New Guinea, and then about 1100 - 800 BC into the islands of Southern Melanesia and West Polynesia where it is known as Lapita,” said Dr. Carson.

Dr Hsiao-chun Hung, right, demonstrates an archaeological sieving technique to members of the local community in Magapit, Cagayan province, north of Manila.  Contributed photosDr Hsiao-chun Hung, right, demonstrates an archaeological sieving technique to members of the local community in Magapit, Cagayan province, north of Manila. Contributed photos

Dr. Hung’s research has included a wide swath of the region covering southeast coastal China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Mariana Islands.

“With this larger perspective, Dr. Hung has been able to situate the findings of specific sites in a holistic context, as she has done for the House of Taga Site in Tinian and now underway at the Hilltop Site of Magapit in Cagayan Valley,” said Dr. Carson.

He added that the excavation at Magapit will continue through the month of April, in partnership with the Philippines’ National Museum.

Dentate-stamped pottery in the Marianas

In the Marianas, remnants of these dentate-stamped pottery tradition are found in Ritidian and Tarague in Guam, the House of Taga and Unai Chulu in Tinian, and Chalan Piao, Achugao, and Unai Bapot in Saipan, among other sites

According to Dr. Carson, “Of those sites, Dr Hung excavated at the House of Taga on Tinian in 2011 and 2013, so far the largest single controlled archaeological excavation in the Mariana Islands at more than 90 sq. m.

This excavation turned up evidence of the first people who lived in the region about 1500 BC.

“The site contained traces of post molds, stone work features, cooking hearths, and other elements of a collection of stilt-raised houses that were constructed on the ancient shoreline about 1500 BC,” he said.

He also said the site produced so far the largest known collection of artifacts from this ancient time period of the Mariana Islands, currently in the process of final detailed analysis.

“This major research project is an ongoing collaboration with the CNMI Historic Preservation Office,” Dr. Carson added.

The current research in Magapit, Cagayan is a joint project of Dr. Hung, a research fellow at the Department of Archaeology and Natural History, the Australian National University and Dr. Carson, a visiting associate professor of archaeology, Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.

The research is funded by their joint research grants from the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation and the Australian Research Council, covering archaeological research projects in Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands.