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Trash Archaeology
 
By Elson T. Elizaga
 

In a news reporting class in Silliman University, Dr. Crispin Maslog said that if you want to study a man, you take the contents of his wastebasket.

This advice is popular in other sciences, such as forensics, zoology, and archaeology. Put "trash important in archaeology" in google.com and you'll find numerous references. One website is Social Studies for Kids. It says, "It might sound a little silly, but archaeologists can find out a lot about people by looking through their trash." In 2006, trash mounds in Alaska have changed a popular belief about Inupiat Eskimos.

On August 5, 2003, Xavier University archaeologist Dr. Erlinda M. Burton couldn't contain her excitement when she found a midden at the bottom of Obsidian Hill in Huluga. A midden is "a mound or deposit containing shells, animal bones, and other refuse that indicates the site of a human settlement."

From the opposite side of the hill came archaeologists Leee Anthony Neri and Clyde Jagoon, representing the Archaeological Studies Program of the University of the Philippines and the National Museum. They were examining the damage on the Huluga Open Site because of the road project of former mayor Vicente Yap Emano. Neri saw me holding a piece of bone and quickly but quietly extended a plastic bag in front of me. I hesitated but gave the piece to him. [Leee Anthony Neri is often misspelled as Lee Neri in news articles.]

Two things Burton did immediately: She wrote to the National Museum, asking for a permit to dig at the midden. She explained that her archaeology students would help. So, the project would be at NO COST to the government.

Then she requested the lot owner Wilson Cabaluna, a City Tourism Office employee, to protect the same area.

Strangely, however, the National Museum didn't reply for weeks, despite government service rule that letters should be responded in 15 days. A letter would reach Burton three months later. And Cabaluna refused to cooperate, digging a pit in the midden. This pit would be described in a report of the Archaeological Studies Program as one of two "Treasure Hunter's Pits".

Alarmed, I sent pictures of the midden and found fossils to National Museum lawyer Trixie Angeles.

In October 2003, Burton presented Huluga at the fourth annual conference of the Kapisanan ng mga Arkeologists ng Pilipinas (KAPI). She showed pictures of the midden and found contents.

In December 2003, Burton proceeded with her planned excavation without a National Museum permit. She and her students, however, dug only in the lot of Danilo Bacarro, after getting his approval. Meanwhile, to Burton's dismay, Cabaluna continued digging nearby and she had no authority to stop him. Burton's team found only earthenware sherds in Bacarro's lot.

During the last week of October 2004 and the first two weeks of November 2004, a team from the Archaeological Studies Program led by Dr. Victor Paz dug on top of the heavily eroded Obsidian Hill, only about 30 meters away from the midden, without consulting Burton and other local archaeologists and historians.

Afterwards, even before their colleagues in Manila could check the evidence (or lack of it), and WITHOUT consulting local scientists, the team held a press conference, where they announced that the Huluga Open Site -- which includes the hill -- is a "habitation, but unlikely a settlement".  They didn't mention the midden.

Months later, the Archaeological Studies Program team published a report of the excavations. The report states NO midden in Huluga. It also ignored the fossils and artifacts found by the Heritage Conservation Advocates (HCA) in 2003. One such relic is the whale harpoon, identified by archaeologist Dr. Eusebio Dizon -- a teacher at the Archaeological Studies Program -- who said the tool has counterparts in Siquijor, Bohol, and Cebu. The Huluga whale harpoon has a National Museum accession number: X-1991-Q2-484. Dr. Richard Ellis of the American Museum of Natural History gave me photos showing a similar sperm whale harpoon in Lomblen Island of Indonesia. Lomblen is 2,000 KILOMETERS south of Huluga.

The Archaeological Studies Program team also didn't mention the Copper 8 Maravedis coin. The coin is minted between 1788 and 1808, more than a century after Spanish missionaries landed in Cagayan de Oro in 1622.

There are other relics found in Huluga before the Archaeological Studies Program came in to dig. Why were these ignored by the Archaeological Studies Program and why didn't the National Museum question the Archaeological Studies Program for this negligence?

I don't know, but these are the facts: Neri was a leader of the Archaeological Studies Program team. His mother worked in the City Planning Office under Emano. In 2003, he told me that a two-week excavation in Huluga would cost P80, 000. Emano gave his team P450, 000 for the same duration -- and that is just on record.

Louis S.B. Leakey said, "You must not leave a stone unturned." Logic and the scientific method forbid a fallacy called "jumping to conclusion". The Archaeological Studies Program team jumped to conclusion when it made a declaration about Huluga without considering all available evidence. This is like determining a person's sex without checking the genitals. It is absurd and is not recommended even by quack doctors.

 
Published 2007. Copyright © Elson T. Elizaga.