Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Worked Shell from Leta Leta Cave, Palawan, Philippines

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Worked Shell from Leta Leta Cave, Palawan, Philippines

Article excerpt


The Leta Leta Cave burial site is a distinctive and enigmatic site of the Philippine Neolithic, excavated by Robert Fox. Containing a number of burials, its unusual earthenware pottery--including the 'yawning-mouth vessel', small footed goblets and a cut-out pedestalled bowl--have seen it recognised in the Philippines as an official site of national significance. In addition to the human remains and earthenware, Fox recovered a sizeable assemblage of shell artefacts which, as with other material remains recovered from Leta Leta, were only cursorily reported in print before his death. Recent analysis of the Leta Leta worked shell has revealed the deposition of unfinished as well as finished shell artefacts in mortuary contexts. As well as giving rare insights into manufacturing protocols in an island where the Neolithic and Metal Age records are characterised virtually solely by mortuary deposits, the deposition of unfinished artefacts opens new avenues for the discussion of Neolithic mortuary practices in Palawan. Results of a study of the worked shell assemblage, in addition to recent radiocarbon determinations for the site, are presented here.

Keywords: shell artefacts, Palawan, mortuary rituals, Conus, Neolithic, Metal Age


The Neolithic and Metal Age archaeological records of Palawan are amongst the richest in the Philippines, and being nearly entirely composed of mortuary deposits provide a valuable window onto ancient Filipino beliefs and spiritual practices. Much of this material was excavated by Robert Fox during the 1960s, and while some was reported upon in print (see especially Fox 1970), Fox's major concern was on elucidating the chronological sequence and broad framework of Palawan prehistory. This necessarily meant that in-depth considerations of particular sites were not a feature of his publications. The material excavated by Fox now provides an outstanding archived resource for archaeologists investigating the Philippine past, and specialist studies of various aspects of these assemblages form important contemporary cornerstones in discussions of Filipino prehistory (e.g. Dizon et al. 2002; Pawlik and Ronquillo 2003; Detroit et al. 2004; Hung et al. 2007). The assemblage from Leta Leta, now curated by the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila, forms a small fraction of this archive, and worked shell from this site was studied in 2002 by the authors. The 2002 study was part of a wider comparative project on shell-working technologies across Island Southeast Asia and the western Pacific (Szabo 2005), but the results for this important assemblage called for consideration in their own right.

Background to the site and sample

Leta Leta Cave is a steep fissure in the side of an east-facing karstic sea-cliff located on Langen Island in the Bacuit Archipelago off E1 Nido, northern Palawan, in the southwestern Philippines (see Figure 1). It is only accessible from the sea. The floor slopes sharply from the back of the fissure down to the opening. The treacherous topography of the site, referred to as 'difficult and dangerous' by Fox (1977: 229), has been aggravated by recent sediment instability caused by an earthquake in the early 1980s which effectively destroyed anything that remained of the site.

The site was first recorded as site C-67 by Carl Guthe during the 1922-25 University of Michigan Expedition to the Philippines (Solheim 2002: vii, 116), at which time a small surface collection of artefacts was made. These artefacts, still housed in the University of Michigan Museum, were incorporated into Wilhelm G. Solheim's doctoral work (Solheim 1964, 2002). The site was completely excavated by Robert Fox and colleagues from the National Museum of the Philippines in 1965. Due to its location in northern rather than central Palawan, the site was not included in Fox's (1970) monograph on the Tabon Caves, however numerous references to Leta Leta are made throughout the volume. …

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