The Bone Collectors


Uncovering the past is risky business, but it’s the only way to learn from those who came before us. Writer Claudine Lanzona joins an excavation in Quezon Province to observe how archaeology deepens a community’s sense of place.

Photography by
Cru Camara
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To excavate human bones is to connect with these humans across landscapes of time. Picture yourself in some remote area on the edge of nowhere, on your hands and knees, covered in dust and deep in the trenches, digging for some proof of life. Most of the time you find rocks, and more rocks. Shells. Corals. Dirt clumps. More rocks. In a shining moment you’ll remember for the rest of your life (because the joy of discovery never fades), you find a bone that leads you to uncover a human skeleton. Just like that, you are responsible for telling this person’s story.

Working like true crime experts, archaeologists are the detectives of ancient history, digging in the dirt to reveal stories of past lives. To the trained eye, something as mundane as a one-inch pottery shard can unravel the traditions of an entire culture. All that in a little shard; almost everything is a clue.

Sometimes, the find is grander. In April 2019, archaeologists excavating in the Philippines made a bold discovery: A new species of humans previously unknown to science. After excavating some teeth, a thigh bone, hand bones, and foot bones, they found that their structures were different from those of other known species of humans.

Officially named Homo luzonensis, this early human lived in Luzon 50,000 to 67,000 years ago, suggesting that they may have been roaming around Southeast Asia at the same time as other human species such as Homo floresiensis and our own species Homo sapiens. Such a discovery has the power to rewrite history: the story of human evolution, why Homo sapiens survived, and why our ancient cousins Homo luzonensis did not.

But more often than not, the archaeological discoveries are small, and it is up to the archaeologists to keep digging.

In a tiny seaside town of Catanauan, Quezon province, a similar form of ancestral awareness unfolds on hyperlocal scale. It truly is a tiny town; if we blinked we’d miss it after driving through spaghetti-looping dirt roads and no other car in sight. People stare as our car bumbles through the rocky path. On one side lie forests and thick tropical jungle leading to seemingly nowhere, and on the other side is the vast and serene Tayabas Bay, the island of Marinduque floating in the horizon.

The waters are so calm they’re unsettling, looking almost like a huge cement pavement, but with their gentle whispers lapping on the shore. The townspeople go about their daily affairs, tending to livestock while hogs grunt and squeal; fishermen pack nets into boats before disappearing into the bay; shopkeepers pull the shades up for another day of trade; and tricycles, overflowing with school children, putter away on dirt paths.

The bucolic scene changes at the perimeter: Here is a small crowd of people beside dug up holes in the soil, staring at rocks. They eye each one closely, turning them over in their hands as if they were examining ripe fruit in a supermarket. Satisfied, they dust them off with little paintbrushes and place them in little resealable plastic bags. It’s like a shopping scene but with rocks and tiny shells. All we can do is stare politely and smile until they ask if we’d like to join them; we shake our heads and hands, palms out convulsing wildly—no thanks, we might break something. Just a writer and photographer with no archaeological experience whatsoever… unless you count watching Indiana Jones movies.

Working like true crime experts, archaeologists are the detectives of ancient history, digging in the dirt to reveal stories of past lives.

Some of these people really do dress like Indiana Jones, but no one’s looking for buried treasure—“treasure hunters” is a term that makes their blood boil. The people standing four feet in the dirt are part of the Catanauan Archaeological & Heritage Project (CAHP), comprised of students and professors from the University of the Philippines Diliman and the Australian National University, here to continue their mission of public archaeology and heritage conservation.

Every January since 2008, they’ve set up camp here at Tuhian, staying for weeks at a time, gathering artifacts from human activity that took place 4,000 years ago. That’s about the same time Stonehenge was completed. While people were dragging giant rocks around in England, ancient Filipinos were right here in today’s Catanauan, going about their own daily projects: decorating pottery and earthenware, crafting beads, carving bone ornaments, shaping ceramic tiles, carving away at a miniature clay pig figurine—only a few of the many objects they left behind.

It’s up to the archaeologists to connect these puzzle pieces and paint a picture of what village life was like way back in the day. The CAHP team plot each artifact accordingly, and when you zoom out and see the whole map you can time travel and imagine the entire village interacting with each other: people catching fish and clams for the kitchen, cooking the day’s harvest and cleaning their homes, crafting accessories, making tools and weapons, carrying out worship, giving life, burying their dead. It’s ancient history coming to life before our very eyes; we can almost see their ghosts walking around.

To tell their story is an homage to those who came before us, shaping who we are and how we live today. But for that story to get to us, the archaeologists must dig their way through the layers of time.

The language of scientific precision is at play here: “Artifact found on the northwest corner Z62LDP, layer 862 of context 459, trench 4,” says one of the students during a routine meeting by the trenches, peppering the air with what sounds like all possible combinations of letters and numbers in the known universe. This goes on for a few minutes. Who knew archaeology was this precise? Well, not us. We stand there in awe most of the time, eyeing the ground closely, the ground that’s littered with all sorts of bones and shells and tiny things; standing there, unmoving, and afraid to break things.

The crowd eyes the specific area before dutifully mapping it out on their notebooks for an updated overview of the entire excavation. The student continues, “This piece might be part of a larger burial jar, or it could be part of a smaller pot, we’re not really sure yet. We’ll find out more tomorrow when we continue excavating the surrounding areas.”

Another student reveals her progress unearthing a human skeleton: “I’ve found six new teeth, uncovered more cranium sides, collar bones, vertebrae, and pelvis. Much more of the bone now.” Though her tone is almost mechanical, the awe of handling human remains is not lost on her; later on, she confides that she’s filled with both nerves and excitement to be handling something so sensitive: “I have to be careful. I break this and it might break the whole thing. Then it’s all over.”

Nervous laughter. We know how she feels.

Shortly after the day’s recap, a unique artifact is passed around slowly like a precious gem—the catch of the day: an ancient dugong bone. “I... I can hold it?” Wide eyes, shaky hands. After handling mounds of dirt, rocks, shells, and other commonplace objects, a dugong bone is a refreshing find. A sense of wonder hushes the group, as if reminded of why they love digging in the first place.

Excavation is only the beginning of the trail. It’s during further research that archaeologists connect the clues to the literature, and the clues must make it to the lab in one piece. “Please—I know I just said this yesterday, but please—label and record properly,” announces one of the leaders as he shows the guilty bag to the crowd. “We found these shells sealed in plastic bags; please don’t do this. There’s no air, they get moist, they will disintegrate. Again, use the mesh bags, thank you!” The day’s finds are segregated into their own bags which are labeled with codes for researchers to organize and examine in the laboratory. After that, the artifacts are sent to storage rooms to be kept, or museums to be displayed.

“Another shell! So sick of shells. I just wanna find something else already.”

Burial jars, human remains, boat-shaped markers atop jars—these are some of the most important artifacts that have enabled CAHP experts to begin writing Catanauan’s history. We now know that humans were living here for at least 4,000 years and were seafaring people, that the ocean was a large part of their daily life, that they practiced forms of worship, that they believed in an afterlife. Burial jars comprise most of the evidence that has revealed the social customs of these people; how people treat their dead shows us what they value and helps us understand their traditions and beliefs.

“Examining death, after all, is learning about life,” explains Anna Pineda, department member of the UP Archaeological Studies Program. She goes on to describe how studying the underlying anthropology of artifacts promotes them from being mere objects to becoming rich vessels of meaning and purpose. A deft connector of the scientific to the spiritual, she zeroes in on the meanings of burial jar designs after excavation: what do these markings mean? Why did they choose a jar as a burial container instead of, say, a long box?

The answers lie in traditional folk tales and stories handed down through the ages: burial jars served as new containers for the soul as the body began its journey of decomposition. Ancient cultures (that still pervade some modern ones today) believed that the soul would return to this life whenever they needed something—such as food or company—which explains why burial jars were placed beside containers of food and drink. Other burial jars were called “talking jars,” because jars are portable—people were able to take them around and include them in regular social events such as community meetings and family gatherings. Those in talking jars were still seen as members of society and consulted in times of need, as if they were still around physically, before the soul would journey on to the afterlife. Should the family move to another house? What should be done with the thief in the village? The spirit in the talking jar still had a say in such decision-making.

“You can really see that kind of practice happening by decoding ancient texts and even through some ‘superstitious’ stories that have been passed down to us. We even have some sayings that are still around that relate to folktales. For example, when we get hurt in a minor way we say ‘Malayo pa iyan sa bituka,’ it’s still far from the gut—the gut has always been seen as the center of being, the most important part of the self; same with the soul or kaluluwa. They would shape the burial jars to look similar to the cooking pot; when hungry, one would go to the pot.” The pot was a symbol of importance, a core object in daily life.

Anna goes on to explain that we get to appreciate more of our modern life when we discover their ancient origins; they have stood the test of time. Through designs and markings on artifacts, archaeologists can decode their language and translate this heritage for the rest of us to understand. The heritage of their material culture lives on.

It’s ancient history coming to life before our very eyes; we can almost see their ghosts walking around.

CAHP’s head and heart is Dr. Victor Paz, or Sir Vic as everyone here calls him, a pioneer at the Catanauan excavation while managing a few other excavations around the country. He is also a professor of archaeology at UP.

“It’s not just about the science and terminology, it’s about how it impacts people today,” he says. He’s an advocate for the art and science of Philippine archaeology, an area of expertise that will only flourish if the practice is passed down properly—something he is particular about. “Always remember the context. Consider the wider implications, how it all fits into the bigger picture. Don’t get too focused on your excavation,” he warns the group.

The students shovel in trenches all day, sun beating down their necks, all hands and knees, sweaty and hunched over. Rocks are picked, bones dusted off, stones and pebbles lifted with tiny sticks—it’s the kind of slow, careful work you can easily get hypnotized by. It’s high noon, and amidst the ambient sounds of soil crunch and sand whispers, a student sighs and slumps with frustration: “Another shell! So sick of shells. I just wanna find something else already.” A few others offer groans in sympathy.

That’s when Sir Vic interrupts, “Hey. Don’t just think about your trench. It’s not about the shells or the rocks or what you found today. Connect it to the bigger picture. Not everyone will find an artifact every time. Remember what you are here for. Remember what you are really doing.”

Aside from practice and gaining experience from being out on the field, the students are here to contribute to CAHP’s local heritage efforts. “We come in here, the locals allow us to stay and dig around, to excavate. The immediate return to the local community is their own heritage. There’s no archaeology without heritage,” Sir Vic explains.

As part of their heritage work, the CAHP team have begun different projects to spread their findings to the community level. In the middle of the town, there is a house with a small exhibit for anyone to visit. On display are their most recent artifacts from the excavations nearby. The exhibit is a simple setup beside the kitchen, something you might not notice had someone not pointed it out. Plastic tables are covered with artifacts spaced out evenly, complete with a note explaining each item in Filipino and English. A tiny carved bone ornament shaped like a little warrior, some dugong bones, burial jar pieces, a small clay figurine of a pig—handmade items that were once dear to somebody.

The locals start strolling in, peering around the exhibit area, reading the posters on jar burial methods and types of shells. But it’s the photo wall that proves to be most popular: a small crowd swells around the solo pictures of all the townspeople who have contributed to the project, whether through excavation work or housekeeping for the researchers. “Uy, ang ganda mo pala!” They giggle and point to photos of themselves and their friends, recounting the days of excavations past.

In a very real way, they’ve helped their community discover their heritage. That heritage work, part of a larger culture, goes beyond this small town; together with the local barangay, CAHP has organized field trips for nearby schools to visit their exhibits. Along with little picture books to explain the importance of ancestry, they pass around artifacts and teach children about each one’s story. Some CAHP members have spoken at local gatherings and town fiestas to explain their project’s value for the community.

While a group of CAHP members are deep in the trenches, scraping away with trowels, a group of Catanauan locals stand by on the outer trench areas, waiting for instructions. They are not mere spectators, watching the experts do their jobs. In Catanauan, the locals are deeply involved in the excavation process: they lift rocks, sift through sand looking for finer pieces that might be pottery pieces or animal teeth, and do a lot of the heavy digging. One of them recalls how they came to find a human skeleton here.

While digging in the area to prepare foundations for building a small structure, they accidentally unearthed something that looked too smooth to be a rock. “Sabi namin ano, baka importante siya. Sinabi namin sa kanila, kina Sir Vic, para sila na yung bahala. Baka ma-disgrasya, ’di naman namin alam kung paano talaga ilipat. Tumutulong lang kami. Sila yung talagang may alam sa mga ganun.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship and process. The locals help dig and sift before handing over objects to the specialists. The specialists, in turn, collect the objects and map them out to reveal Catanauan’s ancient past. They teach the locals about their findings: each object’s function, what they mean, and how this informs the local culture. Together, they paint a more vivid picture of their land and ancestors.

In the rush to #BuildBuildBuild, it’s easy to bury the past and be pulled by the excitement of the future, forgetting that without roots we are lost.

CAHP’s model of public archaeology is proof that heritage preservation is most effective when it’s on the ground, in the hands of the community—not just in the hands of a few academic or government elites. What is normal to this small town hardly ever unfolds similarly in other places.

One of the ANU students is impressed: “It’s amazing how involved the local community is. Back in Australia, digs are always closed off to the public, off-limits, walled up, they’ve got all these barriers so you can’t really see anything from the outside. And everyone’s going like, ‘What’s going on there?’ The locals get invited to come have a look-see sometimes. Scheduled trips, that sort of thing. It’s not something you can really get engaged in.”

Pretty much the same goes for archaeology’s presence in urban areas like Metro Manila. For most of us regular people, archaeology might be something old and dusty on a shelf, with a very scientific name that was apparently quite important. Another jar, a bunch of pots.

We might take them as curiosities, at most; something nice to know. And that’s where CAHP’s example seeks to change things; take archaeology down from its ivory tower and into the hands of the public to prove its significance. What makes the heritage work in Catanauan special is that a large part of the local community is involved and engaging at different levels, from the ground up. After all, it’s easier to ignore a place when we have no attachments to it. A strong sense of community begins at home, in the veins of the past. While we stroll through the town and pass around things they used to own, we can almost feel a connection to these ancient people. Who were they? What were their hopes and dreams? How different were theirs from ours?

Driving back to a highly urbanized place like Metro Manila, the past feels crammed into a corner of modern irrelevance. The past is over, and we see it when we visit the oldest parts of Manila. Historical areas are quickly paved over in the name of progress and industry. But is it progressive to erase the past?

In 2011, the construction of SM-backed Savemore supermarket in Sta. Ana, Manila was halted by the local community when they found out that houses from the 1840s were going to be removed for Savemore’s new building. These houses, older than the historical city of Intramuros, were one of the first settlements along the Pasig River; removing them would be akin to removing one of Sta Ana’s roots.

It took a while, but as the SM executives sat down with community members, each one listened and accepted compromises along with recommendations from Sir Vic’s team (as head of the UP Department of Archaeology’s partnership with the National Museum): Savemore changed its design to suit the town’s heritage aesthetic, built around a hundred year-old tree instead of cutting it down, and left a portion of bahay-na-bato remnants untouched as a public piece of history. Proof of the power of collective effort, big businesses will listen if enough of us work towards making it happen.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often. In the rush to #BuildBuildBuild, it’s easy to bury the past and be pulled by the excitement of the future, forgetting that without roots we are lost. Consider what it would be like if your community maintained its own museum, its own place dedicated to local inheritance—because that’s what heritage is: an inheritance of culture, of buildings, of behavior, of common values from people that used to live there. We received this place. Imagine every building dedicating an area inside to tell the story of what that place’s purpose was 2,000 years ago. What was going on here before? What are we doing wrong? What will the next generation receive from us?

That’s where CAHP’s example seeks to change things; take archaeology down from its ivory tower and into the hands of the public to prove its significance.

To remember is to form a connection with our old community members. We must maintain a collective consciousness of our time and place, as if to tell our ancestors that yes, they matter. Everything matters.

It is not as unreachable as it sounds. Sir Vic brings up a model called Archaeological Impact Assessment, where the archaeologists dig around for any signs of historical significance, and evaluate the area, before giving the go signal for construction. The debate follows after.

It is a beautiful idea: a world where—before empty plots of land ripe for building—the first people called are the archaeologists.

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