Why Filipinos Should Read: Archaeology and Heritage Studies

by Bryan Meniado

Travelling with ease is undoubtedly one of the things we miss in this pandemic, and it’s been more than a year since and we are sadly still unable to fly without the fear of a coronavirus exposure. 

But I miss travelling not only because of mere “paglalakwatsa.” That’s a common misconception when we say ‘travel.’ For me, travelling is more than just merriment, extravagance, or carefree wandering. What I value the most is the opportunity to explore, meet and learn from people, and experience different cultures. That’s why every time I visit a new city, town, or country for vacation or otherwise, I always make the effort to learn more about the stories of the places and the people.

Some of my must-visit places when I travel are the local museums or any place with cultural or historical significance. I know some may find this itinerary boring and I understand we have our own cup of tea. Some might prefer to go shopping, enjoy the amusement park, or get tanned on the beach, and that’s perfectly okay. However, I want to put forward that adding museums or cultural and historical places to your travel itinerary is not that bad either. In fact, just the opposite! 

May is National Heritage Month, and in this Why Filipinos Should Read, I am highlighting the fascinating subjects of archaeology and heritage so that when we are allowed to travel again, we are hopefully more equipped with new perspectives that enable us to better appreciate the places we visit. Tara na!

Archaeo… what?

Indiana Jones. Of course, how can we discuss archaeology without mentioning the most famous archaeologist in all media. Haha! Kidding aside and sorry to break it to you, but actual archaeological work doesn’t include chases, rope swings, and dramatic explosions just like what we see in the movies.

But that does not mean that “real” archaeology does not have its own kind of action and fun. During my stay at the university, I was fortunate to have participated in an archaeological excavation in Batanes as part of our anthropology field school. Indeed, there were no horse rides, gun fights, and brawls involved in our dig. Contrary, my field mates and I had to systematically and cautiously work on our trenches, categorize, record, and analyze data, and write site reports. So, one may ask: where’s the fun there? 

Archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. It documents and explains the origins and development of human culture. One of its primary methods of acquiring data is through excavation. That’s why we also have these common depictions of archaeologists as people who do “hukay hukay” with the trowel. But archaeology is more than just mindless digging of artifacts. 

On the other hand, heritage is something we inherited from the past that we deem invaluable. It can be tangible things such as architecture, buildings, historical places, monuments, artifacts, or intangible things such as folklore, myths, oral traditions, indigenous knowledge and skills, and the performing arts. We often hear heritage from the media, usually along with the word ‘conservation,’ because it is also a concern not just among cultural workers and advocates but also for the bigger tourism industry and numerous government agencies. 

Lessons in archaeology and heritage

Archaeologists must be equipped with necessary knowledge and skills to acquire and interpret large amounts of cultural information. There is a lot of analysis involved in archaeology just like when we study history. But what differentiates archaeology from history is that the former pushes the inquiry further back in time when written records were not prevalent. It attempts to understand the past and ancient human civilizations through surviving material culture. That job requires an inquisitive mind and a lot of skill! It’s like detective work. Isn’t that fascinating? 

I also took several archaeology classes at the university as part of the curriculum. Looking back, I regret not taking more elective classes because it is only now that I realize that those classes have taught me more than what I presume to have learned. I admit that during that time my academic interests and priorities were all over the place that somehow made me take archaeology for granted. *cries*

Archaeology is not just purely “hukay diyan, hukay doon.” Archaeologists don’t just dig literally as they also dig deeper figuratively. I am still grateful to have taken those classes that taught me how to critically interpret and evaluate information, to analyze value and significance, and to see things in different and grander perspectives. Surely, these skills, learning, and understanding can be applied even outside of archaeology. 

Going beyond the museum galleries

Some of the more obvious applications of archaeology and heritage studies are museum and curatorial work. But many of us consider museums as a field trip destination rather than a regular hangout place. I would love to see museums improve their spaces and become mainstream destinations like, for example, malls. Wouldn’t it be so cool to have “Tara, museum tayo” or “Oy, may bagong open na gallery” mainstreamed?

But I also understand why that is not the case and why museums or places with cultural or historical significance only fill the background of our lives as Filipinos. One of my theories is our lack of regard for history. We rarely put much importance towards our past, plus our education system could also benefit from revised and enhanced curricula

That said, we should equip and educate ourselves more about our own past. We should read more about our culture, history, and society. We can also learn new perspectives from archaeology and heritage, especially regarding bigger and deeper questions about our existence not just as Filipinos but also as human beings. This is because archaeology probes further in time and seeks to understand our distant past such as what our ancestors ate, believed, or valued thousands of years ago. Archaeology can answer such inquiries which one wouldn’t have been able to guess without examining extant material culture. And that’s why we have to go beyond our narrow view of artifacts and museum galleries as they are more than just static displays and ornaments. These artefacts tell our story as people or as species.

Fostering awareness, tolerance, and acceptance

Knowing more about the past, ancient human civilizations and cultures, and our ancestors develops our awareness, tolerance, and acceptance for cultural diversity. The diachronic approach of archaeology and heritage gives us a bird’s eye view of our nature that helps us make sense of our differences and similarities as humans. It makes us more conscious of our place in society, history, and this world. It makes us more aware that racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism should have no place in the 21st century. Simply put, archaeological and heritage knowledge teaches us to empathize more and be kinder humans. 

Appreciating and respecting heritage

This month’s celebration of Filipino heritage seeks to develop consciousness, respect, and love for our country’s cultural history. It serves as a reminder for us that our heritage is also our wealth as Filipinos. More importantly, it also reminds us to respect and love one another and transcend our cultural, linguistic, regional, and ethnic differences. As they say, there is unity in diversity. Hence, we should extend our care to our Muslim friends in the Bangsamoro, our indigenous friends in their communities, and your friends from the regions, and so on.

We should also support heritage conservation efforts by volunteering, attending webinars on heritage and culture, visiting museums (when it’s possible again), and educating ourselves and others. Remember, we cannot make sense of the present if we don’t look back to where we came from. And by looking back, we can better equip and prepare ourselves for what lies ahead. 

***

Looking forward, may we achieve herd immunity sooner than later so that we can explore freely again. But while we still have air and inter-regional travel restrictions, I hope we grab this chance to explore our local communities. Maybe the city museum is open for appointments! And if your town doesn’t have one? Then start a petition to urge local officials to build one or more! But let us make sure to follow strict health protocols while having fun. Happy Heritage Month! ☁️

At the Long Hua Temple, a Buddhist temple in Davao (2020) Religion and beliefs are part of our intangible heritage. 
Why Filipinos Should Read appears every last Friday of the month. Read more here.

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