National Museum confirms Sagel Cave a prehistoric burial ground

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/20April) – A one-by-two meter trench excavation by the five-person National Museum team in Sagel Cave, Barangay Pinol, Maitum, Sarangani has yielded human and animal bones and non-anthropomorphic pottery fragments, indicating it was “used as a burial ground in prehistory,” preliminary findings of the team’s Sagel Cave Archaeological Excavation showed.

In a press statement released at noon today through the Sarangani Information Office, the  team which arrived in Maitum Tuesday afternoon and completed its preliminary onsite fieldwork Saturday afternoon recommended that “a program for conservation/protection, archaeological exploration and excavation of sites in the Pinol area is necessary,” but did not mention a desired timetable.

Sagel Cave, so named because it was accidentally found in Sitio Sagel, Barangay Pinol while quarrying on April 5, is, according to the team, “possibly contemporaneous with Ayub Cave” (also known as Pinol Cave) located a few hundred meters southwest of Sagel  which yielded anthropomorphic secondary burial jars dating back to the Metal Age or nearly 2,000 years ago, in 1991.

But “further analysis of associated materials and relevant data is required to confirm this,” the press statement released by archaeologist Nida T. Cuevas, team leader, said.

Cuevas, Museum Researcher II of the Archaeology Division of the National Musem was accompanied in Maitum by team members Alexandra de Leon, Museum Researcher I; Eduardo Bersamira, Museum Researcher I; Jonathan Jacar, Museum Technician II; and Ed Sarmiento, Museum Researcher I of the Cultural Properties Division.

“A significant observation from the investigation is the absence of anthropomorphic pottery from the archaeological excavation,” the team said, adding “this puts in question the context of the anthropomorphic pottery recovered from the present cave surface.”

But the team also acknowledged that “considering that almost half of Sagel cave has been removed due to quarrying operations in the area, the absence (or presence) of anthropomorphic pottery from Sagel is not conclusively established.”

On April 6 when Maitum Mayor Elsie Lucille Perrett and Maitum information officer Beth Ramos Palma Gil visited the site for the first time, Palma Gil photographed potsherds and bones inside the cave. Palma Gil recalled they were informed that day there were bigger pieces.

On April 7,  potsherds representing the left side of a face and an upper torso that matches it, the bottom and parts of a jar were presented to the mayor by Liling Diabel, owner of the land adjacent to the cave.

The National Museum team itself found in Test Pit 1 on Wednesday, April 16, a potsherd resembling part of an adult female’s breast, and another shaped like an elbow.

Still, whether or not Sagel yielded anthropomorphic pottery, the archaeological investigation “indicates burial practices differed between ancient people who used Sagel and Ayub caves.”

But the team also said “further studies are necessary to determine whether such differences indicate the presence of different cultural groups in the vicinity or represent status (e.g., social, political, economic) among Metal Age societies in the Pinol area.”

“Studies of Metal Age societies in Mindanao are very limited and the Pinol area of Sarangani Province is very significant in providing scientific data on this subject,” the team said.

The team recommended that “the Pinol area (both caves and open areas),” located 17 kilometers from the town hall, “be protected from earth moving activities including quarrying, treasure hunting, and other similar activities.”

But the team also acknowledged that permits to quarry in the area may have been granted so “monitoring of such activities are necessary to prevent further destruction of existing archaeological sites in the area.”

“There is great potential for developing cultural tourism in the area that can economically benefit communities residing in the vicinities. As such, a program for conservation/protection, archaeological exploration and excavation of sites in the Pinol area is necessary,” the team said.

The municipality of Maitum on April 15 unanimously passed Resolution 2008-048, declaring Sagel Cave an archaeological site.

The resolution noted that the artifacts “could be used as material evidences for the determination of Maguindanao prehistory and of course the Filipino people in general.”
It also said that “the archeological find which our Southeast Asian neighbors do not have will likewise help boost the tourism industry of Maitum and eventually provide sustainable livelihood for the people near the area and the whole Maitum.”

Dr. Eusebio Dizon, whose team dug the anthropomorphic jars in 1991 and who co-wrote the book “Faces from Maitum” with team member Rey Santiago, described the find in the early 1990s as “unparalleled in Southeast Asia.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)