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On Sherds of Historical Past

There they are, locked in my wife’s curio cabinet, treasured items we have kept for a number of decades not because of their market value but for the strength of their appearance, a force that compels us, almost daily, to look back to who we were and to who we are still today. They are the glazed creamer and sugar bowl, parts of a porcelain tea set passed on to my father long before I was born, surviving a string of other bequests. The cups and saucers of the six-piece set were lost–none of my father’s siblings knew where or how–during the mad scrambling for safe haven two days before the Japanese forces overtook Manila and its environs during the Second World War. How the two glazed items remained afterwards in my father’s possessions was a story no one could ever recount.

But there they are, two luminous porcelain items that passed through the process of glaze-firing in a kiln with heat approaching the maximum of 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit. Before the glaze-firing, an artist must have applied a ceramic glaze over the decoration he had drawn on the surface at what potters called the “bisque-firing” stage and also lined the edges of the cup, saucer, and other items of the proposed set with a band of colors, a process known as “banding” or “lining.” Looking at the two remaining items, what can be seen, as if from a distance, are a perspective of a black boat with a full-blown and unfurled purple sail, a pale blue sky at the background, and seemingly observed from a beach, a coconut tree at the shore the trunk of which is shaded light brown, with dark green palms, and a hanging coconut fruit in bright yellow. At the bottoms of the creamer and sugar bowl are potter’s marks in Japanese.

These creamer and sugar bowl are our treasured items; we, my wife and I, value and preserve them as cultural items, representing a way of life that passed from one generation to the next, embodying the beliefs, attitudes, habits, fears, and hopes of the early Filipino migrants; the dates of their first arrival on Philippine shores were determined, as recorded in history books, to have taken place sometimes between 6000 BC and 4500 BC. The occurrences were bolstered by discoveries of broken pieces of potteries in the Sanga-sanga Cave in Sulu; Laurente Cave, Cagayan; Ayub Cave, Cotobato; Kalanay Cave, Masbate; Manunggul Cave, in Lipunan Point, Palawan; Calatagan Cave, Batangas; and sherds unearthed in other “Pottery Complex” found in southern Bicol, Bukidnon, and in Davao del Sur.

Thanks to the discovery of carbon-dating pioneered by Nobel Prize winner Willard F. Libby and the present use of geochemical analysis in archeology, it is now possible to determine the age of the sherds with accuracy. Carbon-dating measures through a mathematical process the amount of “Carbon—14” (one of the three radioactive isotopes in an atom) present in an object. Geochemical analysis identifies the procurement practices, manufacturing methods, organization of production, consumption and distribution processes, and the effects of post “depositional” processes of ceramic materials.

The history of pottery in the Philippines is viewed by some as the early beginnings of a “functional” art; in later years, pottery begun to show highly artistic designs. But throughout the centuries the early, basic forms of pottery were in the shapes of pot (“palayok,” in Tagalog) and pan (“kawale”) used for cooking, and jars (“banga” and “tapayan”) used for storing liquids and keeping the remains of corpses for burial. Burying or re-burying corpses in jars was a practice brought over by migrants from the mainland Asia in 3000 BC. The most beautiful forms of pottery, judged to have existed at that time, showed exquisite designs on jars used for burial.

These early forms of pottery, collectively called “earthenware,” were made from clay that was fired at low temperature in open pits or in open bonfires. Shapes were formed by hand and undecorated. This “bisque” form of pottery was porous and its utility function for storage was limited. The development and subsequent application of ceramic glaze to a wide variety of clays in the latter stage of the process made the resulting products impenetrable and practicable. The growth of trade with neighboring Asian countries unraveled to the early Filipinos a finding that using glazed and kiln-fired ceramics from China made the product more durable and waterproof.

The addition of decoration to the earthenware and firing at a much higher temperature evolved since then. It was noted that early Filipinos at this time started making pottery before the residents of the nearby Cambodia did; neighbors in Thailand started at the same time as the Filipinos did, foreshadowing the eventual widespread development of pottery technology. Early pottery designs were footed dishes decorated with geometric cutouts, molding, cording, and impressions of human fingers. A high level of artistry in pottery was achieved in the 10th Century with the introduction of “kendi,” a jar with a spout, patterned after the jar produced in India.

In the present market environment, the production and sale of so-called” utilitarian” pottery is a thriving business. Pottery produced locally, especially in the northern and central regions of the Philippines, exhibits steady demands for pots used for cooking, as containers for drinking water, fish sauce, and for other delicacies, and as plant adornments. In the cities of Manila, Makati, and other environs comprising Metropolitan Manila, pottery has been elevated to art form. Pottery-artists who are deeply influenced by local and foreign pottery traditions and by new technology have been turning out glazed ceramic products designed for decorative purposes. Art galleries have started showing them in regularly-scheduled exhibits; there are even clamors for schools to offer pottery courses. On the whole, Philippine pottery has indeed come a long way to prominence.

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