Did You Know? The Butuan Archaeological Sites and the Role of the Philippines in the Maritime Silk Roads

Two Balangays in Full Sail © Flickr / Andy Maluche

Archaeological finds uncovered in Butuan City in the North of Mindanao in the Philippines Archipelago have provided considerable evidence of the regions connections with the Maritime Silk Roads. The recovery of open water boats as well as various types of ceramic ware from sites in Butuan is significant in indicating trading activity occurring with other parts of Southeast Asia from the beginning of the 10th century, earlier than had previously been thought.

In addition to the uncovering of trade wares from archaeological sites at Butuan, the discovery of a number of plank-built and edge-pegged wooden open water boats (known as balangay) within the same sites further attests to the significance of the area to Philippine and Southeast Asian Maritime Silk Roads history.

Around nine balangay boats have been uncovered at the Butuan sites that range in date from the 10th to the 13th century CE.  All the recovered boats were constructed with the same edge-pegged method of construction, which is typical of Southeast Asian boat-making technology. The planks are one long continuous piece, carved to shape and made of hardwood. It is noteworthy that there is no basic difference in the boat building technology between the oldest and most recent balangays, indicating that the techniques used to construct these boats remained largely unchanged over the 400 hundred year period of finds. Indeed, the technical skills and knowledge used to make balangays is still passed down from generation to generation in the Philippines today.

The recovery of the balangays at Butuan attests to a high level of boat building technology and seamanship in the Philippines archipelago. Due to the archipelagic geography of the Philippines, boats played a vital role in transportation, commerce, and in facilitating contact and exchange between population centres throughout the region and beyond.

Other archaeological finds from sites at Butuan include large quantities of ceramics and metal artefacts such as gongs and bells. Ceramics found at the site include Chinese trade ware, mainly pottery, dating from the Five Dynasties period ( 907 – 960 CE) and the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE). From slightly later periods, ceramics from modern day Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, as well as glassware from the Iranian plateau, have also been uncovered, again indicating the extent to which the Philippines archipelago was integrated into the Silk Roads Maritime trade network.

The trade of material goods over large expanses of water enhanced the establishment of coastal communities, which were highly nucleated and densely populated, providing forums for diverse populations to interact with each other. The maritime trade, which flourished in the Philippines during this period, included local exchanges among settlements, the movements of people across bodies of water and the retail distribution of trade ware ceramics throughout the archipelago.

Furthermore, the discovery of tools for the processing of gold items as well as over a hundred clay crucibles, suggest that the area was possibly home to an extensive gold ornaments industry over 1000 years ago.

The diversity of the trade wares recovered from Butuan archaeological sites, including high-fired and low-fired ceramics, glass beads and metal objects made of iron, bronze and gold, as well as the many balangays, attests to the active participation of the Philippines archipelago, in the thriving Maritime Silk roads of South East Asia during the 10th - 13th centuries CE.

See Also

Butuan Archeological Sites - Tentative Lists - World Heritage Centre

The Exchange of Spices along the Silk Roads

The Maritime Silk Roads and the Diffusion of Islam in the Korean Peninsula

The Exchange of Technical Knowledge used to Craft Silk Roads Goods

Silk Roads exchange and the Development of the Medical Sciences

Silk Roads Exchanges in Chinese Gastronomy

Mathematical Sciences along the Silk Roads

The Role of Women in Central Asian Nomadic Society

Ancient Trading Centres in the Malay Peninsula

Sri Lankan Harbour Cities and the Maritime Silk Roads

The Use of the Malay Language in Coastal Javanese Literature


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