The Cebu gold death mask: Proof of Cebu’s vibrant pre-colonial culture
CEBU CITY, Philippines – Did you know that Cebu was one of the sites where archeologists unearthed a complete set of the gold death mask?
The Cebu gold death mask has been brought back to Cebu City, with the National Museum in Cebu (NM-Cebu) as its new home.
The golden orifices, which date back to the 15th century, were one of the highlights in NM-Cebu. They are on display in the museum’s Karaang Sugbo and Kabiling Bahandi gallery, which is dedicated to the ‘old Cebu’.
The death mask is a funeral tradition in the pre-colonial Philippines, and they are made of thin, gold sheets to cover various parts of the face of the dead.
In 2006, when construction for the tunnel that would connect mainland Cebu City to the South Road Properties (SRP) was about to start, workers dug up what looked like burial jars and other pre-colonial artifacts.
The National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) then immediately launched an archeological rescue to retrieve and study the artifacts, the most valuable of which was a skull with its eyes, nose, and mouth covered in sheets of gold.
The findings later became proof that wearing of gold death masks was also being practiced in pre-colonial Cebu.
Archeologists believed the gold mask ‘belonged to a person of status’, based on its burial style. Aside from the mask itself, the remains, found inside a large ceramic container, also had a gold dagger.
The gold death mask
The first gold death mask found in the Philippines was in Oton, Iloilo.
In 1967, systematic excavations by National Museum anthropologists Alfredo Evangelista and F. Landa Jocano led to the discovery of a gold death mask, ‘decorated with repousse dots and curvilinear motifs for both the eye and nose covers.’
The National Museum currently has three sets of gold death masks, including the ones found in Cebu and Iloilo, based on a report from the Vera Files. The third came from Butuan.
According to the National Museum, early Bisayans believed that covering the dead’s eyes, nose, and mouth with gold protects them from evil spirits.
“They believed that the brightness of the gold drives away the evil spirits,” they said.
“Gold was also associated with social status, and persons with high ranks were buried with as much gold as possible – gold face covers, small gold in between the burial shroud, gold accessories, jewelry, and beads, and other prized possessions like ceramics,” they added.
Gold death masks were also found in other areas in Asia such as in Bali in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China in what scholars argued as ‘evidence of the specialized use of gold in burial practice.’ Their practices, however, may be different from those in the Visayas.
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