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Rizal Stones of Ticao, Masbate
The stone inscriptions mounted on a concrete base on the Rizal Elementary School grounds, Ticao, Masbate (Photo: Dr. Francisco Datar, UP Anthropology Dept.)

Professors at the University of the Philippines (UP) recently announced the discovery of two tablets bearing what might be ancient inscriptions written in the pre-colonial Filipino script known as baybayin. The tablets, dubbed the Rizal Stones, were found near the town of Monreal on Ticao Island in Masbate province. If proved authentic, these would be the first ancient specimens of the script ever found etched in stone, and possibly a valuable new source of information about the country’s remote past.

However, concerns have been raised since news of the discovery hit the Internet. Some scholars doubt the authenticity of the inscriptions and photographs have surfaced that seem to contradict early reports about how the tablets were found.

The inscriptions

According to a June 19 press release from the UP team examining the discovery, the larger, triangular fragment weighs approximately 30 kg and, “has the ancient baybayin inscriptions on both sides, which means that the stone was designed to be viewed erect.” The smaller circular stone has markings on only one side. In total, the team counted 153 characters on the two stone tablets.

While the team has not yet released a complete translation or transcription of the text, they did speculate on the possible meanings of some words.

According to the statement, “preliminary analysis on the inscriptions strongly indicates a Visayan origin and religious connection, as shown by some letter sequences like: b l h l (balahala, old Visayan for ‘deity’); b t h l (batahala, meaning ‘God Almighty’); b h y (bahaya, whose shortened form baya means ‘peril’); and i h l (ihalad, meaning ‘to make an offering’).”

While the authenticity of the find has yet to be validated, Dr. Francisco A. Datar of the UP Anthropology Department said that he found no persuasive evidence of a hoax.

Doubts raised

However, as soon as news of the discovery broke, other scholars also familiar with baybayin writing began to raise doubts on Internet forums about the antiquity of the stone inscriptions.

“My first gut reaction is that this is not an ancient artifact,” said Pilipino Express columnist, Paul Morrow, quoted in a GMA News Online article.

Morrow, who has been studying Philippine scripts for several years, added, “The letter shapes are unlike any other authentic specimens of Filipino baybayin handwriting but instead, resemble a typeface that was developed for a Spanish printing press in the early 1600s.”

Chris Miller, a linguist in Montreal, Quebec, who has done extensive research on the baybayin and the scripts of Southeast Asia and India, wrote on Facebook, “I am completely convinced after looking at the downloaded blow-up of [an image of the stone] that this cannot be anything other than a latter day inscription modelled specifically on the letter shapes in the López Belarmino typeface, i.e. what people think is Baybayin when they are unacquainted with the rich variety of ways people actually wrote the script.”

Spelling errors

Miller and others also noted the apparent absence of kudlits, or diacritical marks that indicate different vowel sounds, and vertical strokes that would normally be used to separate groups of characters.

“These are basic features of baybayin writing,” said Morrow. “Without kudlits it is impossible to combine consonants with any vowels except ‘a’. Also, authentic pre-colonial and early colonial baybayin writing flowed in unbroken lines with vertical strokes between groups of words, but these inscriptions have spaces like Western writing.”

In addition to their suspicions about the Rizal Stones, online commentators were also alarmed to learn that school children had cleaned the inscriptions with a nail before the UP team could examine the find, a detail reported by Dano Tingcungco, on GMA TV’s Unang Balita.

“Whatever original tooling marks existed are gone,” said Ray Haguisan, a San Francisco-based baybayin artist who works in many materials including soapstone. “The carving could have been dated by the amount of natural weathering but since it was cleaned and used for cleaning shoes, chances are even more slim.”

UP team fires back

It was not long before the UP team of professors fired back with another press release on June 22, calling the outside observations “premature” and asserting that “long distance speculations will not help in determining the artifact’s authenticity or antiquity.”

The statement quoted Dr. Datar, saying, “issues regarding the diacritical marks and the symbols can only be resolved by undertaking a definitive transcription of the inscriptions. This still has to be carried out in a more rigorous and scientific way by actual examination of the specimen under the direction of the National Museum.” Datar added, “We urge all scholars and interested parties to refrain from passing judgment about its age or its other characteristics without concrete facts.”

Discovery of the stones questioned

At present, one thing that the UP team  and scholars outside the Philippines  do agree on is that there is no evidence, so far, that suggests the Rizal Stones are a deliberate hoax. However, new details about the discovery of the tablets are raising more questions.

According to the first UP press release, the tablets were originally unearthed in 2000 while Ticao residents were digging a pit inside the grounds of Rizal Elementary School. The inscriptions went unnoticed for more than 10 years while schoolchildren used the stones as a doormat to remove mud from their shoes and as a makeshift platform for washing plates. When the unusual markings were finally noticed in April this year, the new principal of the school instructed students to clean the stones with water.

After cleaning the stones, according to the UP press release, “School officials immediately reported the find to Dr. Francisco A. Datar… who immediately visited the area, conducted interviews, made paper tracings of the inscriptions and took several photographs.”

However, contrary to the report from Ticao, various photographs have since surfaced showing the larger stone on public display on the Rizal School grounds, cemented into two or possibly three different settings. One photograph, posted on Facebook on April 13, 2011 — approximately the same time as the reported discovery of the inscriptions — shows the stone already mounted on a peach-coloured pedestal bearing an inscription about the discovery of the stones. Another photo shows the same stone on a different smaller concrete mount. There is also a paint splotch on the stone that matches turquoise benches in the background. The UP photos, however, show no cement settings but bear traces of the peach-coloured paint from the larger pedestal. Dark-coloured corners at the base of the stone seen in the pedestal photo are missing in the UP photo.

As of press time, the UP team is re-examining the Ticao residents’ report of the discovery.

– Paul Morrow, The Pilipino Express


Photo belonging to Prada Antonio posted on Facebook, April 13, 2011, shows larger Rizal Stone on a different peach-coloured pedestal. Early reports stated that the tablet served as a kind of doormat for more than 10 years until its inscriptions were noticed in April 2011 and that UP officials were notified immediately of the discovery
Press release photo shows a stripe of peach paint along the top of the inscription where the stone was embedded in the tallest of the concrete pedestals. Dark corners on the broad edge of the stone are now missing. (Photo: Dr. Francisco Datar, UP Anthropology Dept.)
Press release photo of the smaller Rizal Stone
(Photo: Dr. Francisco Datar, UP Anthropology Dept.)
Close up of large stone with paint smudge from pedestal (Photo: Prada Antonio)
Rizal Elementary School, Monreal, Ticao, Masbate

For more photos and details about this story, find Paul Morrow on Facebook

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