Jar burial in San Remigio
San Remigio, Cebu—The Lapyahan Public Beach in the here was the scene of a frenzied but controlled retrieval of human bones buried inside a large jar with a conical bottom yesterday. The work proceeded in earnest as the Holy Week entered its most significant stretch and my team of archaeologists and students had to wind down to give way to the observance of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
The University of San Carlos and the National Museum are here on a third round of excavations with the logistical support of the Province of Cebu as well as the Municipality of San Remigio. This round follows the successful conduct last year of two month-long excavations, including one that was conducted with the University of Guam and the Cebu Provincial Tourism and Heritage Council (CPTHC).
After seven days of digging, we found the first jar burial ever recovered at an archaeological site in Cebu by archaeologists. And the jar I am talking about is equally unique: it has a conical bottom and appears to be shaped like a spinning top or kasing. There have been plenty of reports about the looting of burial sites all over Cebu that included jar burials but no archaeological report has ever come of them. That is, except the very brief descriptions of finding such burials in caves (not buried in the ground) by Carl E. Guthe of the University of Michigan Southern Philippines Expedition around 1923 to 1925.
We are once again fortunate that the tiny, 1,200-square meter white sand beach property of the municipality has turned out to be more promising despite the tales of looting in the 1970s that attended out first arrival here in March last year.
The other day we also uncovered what I suspect to be a smaller jar burial at another excavation unit about 50 meters north of this particular find. That one had another jar placed in overturned position on top to cover it. When we screened the pot-covered jar, there were bones that seemed to be those of an infant although only further laboratory analysis will be able to confirm if these are human and not animal.
Secondary burials happen when living relatives exhume the dead bodies of loved ones after a sufficient time when the flesh has decomposed. The bones are then collected, washed, and in some cultures, dyed red (primarily ochre) and then placed inside a jar.
This would be usually carried out only when one could afford it. Thus, many families had to postpone doing this reburial until such time that they had the resources—in our case pigs and lots of food akin to those served in a fiesta—to invite relatives to attend the event.
I suspect the Cebuano word “hubkas” which today refers to the first death anniversary celebrations carried out either at home or in the cemetery or both had a different meaning in pre-Spanish times.
There are cultures like the Tana Toraja of Indonesia that still practice secondary burial customs but which involve elaborate wooden carriages bearing the bones of the dead inside a box in a procession to a sacred cave, followed thereafter by sumptuous feasting. This even became a tourist attraction in itself, sometimes staged even without real bones, just so tourists can be enthralled in the 1980s. Fortunately, such tourist restagings of the event were condemned as inauthentic and a desecration of real cultural traditions and have since been stopped.
We still have three weeks left for this excavation season and already one more burial is waiting to be opened at another unit near this jar burial. But that will have to wait as we have to join the rest of Christendom in observing the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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