Starweek Magazine

The castles of Batanes

- Ross Harper-Alonso -
The seaside barrio of Nakamuan, Batanes is the only home Leila Beronque has ever known. Her 88-year-old mother still lives in the stone house Leila’s grandparents built. Believed to be the oldest in the district, its wide Palo Maria planks gleam without the benefit of commercial floorwax. Symbolic of the family’s way of life, smoked meat, dried fish, toasted cloves of garlic and soot-covered baskets brimming with root crops hang around the open hearth.

For three generations, its massive walls withstood countless storms and a tidal wave that hit the small community one evening in 1987. Homes across the streets were completely destroyed, including the one a then-pregnant Leila and her children were almost swept away in.

Located on the northernmost tip of the Philippines, this is life in the Batanes Islands, a place where the weather must not only always be considered, but one has to learn to manage to live with it. Batanes is a picturesque land of volcanic rock and coral with rolling hills, cliffs and grasslands borne over time by marine currents, fire and winds.

For decades, Batanes has lingered in quiet isolation, unfazed by the roar of modern times, remaining untainted and pure like the hearts of her people, the Ivatans. Their dramatic province comes close to many people’s vision of paradise and is a strong magnet for travel photographers, adventurers and bird watchers. Only in 1994 did archeologists realize she was also a window to the past.

Dr. Eusebio Dizon, deputy director of the Archeology Division of the National Museum, became very interested in Batanes after Lory Tan of wwf Philippines showed him some photographs he took on a trip to Sabtang Island.

"Lory found columnar stones with holes in them and I was very curious to find out if these were archeological potentials," Dr. Dizon recalls. "Dr. Florendo of Savidug Batanes, a respected historian and anthropologist, led us to new archeological sites after that."

From there the Batanes Archeological Project progressed and the team of archeologists, researchers, geologists and illustrators found themselves amazed and intrigued with every new discovery.

The curious looking stones Tan photographed are not only 500 to 800 years old but the holes in them are man-made. Several hypotheses were formulated to help explain their purpose. It was possible they were symbols of religious, political and social status or, when ropes were tied to the drilled holes, they were either used to hold down houses or as vessel anchors.

While looking for the quarry, the team found themselves staring at a triangular shaped hill at the seaside barrio of Savidug. They learned this was one of the four high rocky formations the locals call "Idyang". Dr. Dizon believes they functioned like castles once upon a time. "When I saw the Idyang, I started jumping up and down and shouting–it was a castle," Dr. Dizon laughs. "Everyone except my colleague, Rey Santiago, thought I had lost my mind."

Often, the term "castle" is restricted in meaning to fortified residences of the European Middle Ages. If one is limited to the idea that a castle is a building where a king and queen live happily ever after, then the Idyangs of Batanes will change all that. Here, remains of animal bone, consumed shellfish, bird and fish bones confirm that a clan lived on this particular Idyang almost eight centuries ago. Adding to the puzzle is the remarkable similarity between the Savidug Idyangs and the Okinawan castles called Guzukus.

The builders of the Idyangs and Guzukus were selective in choosing natural topographies to be utilized. They also made fantastic human modifications. Other Idyangs have stone pavements that could have led up to the homes. The people who habituated these high places survived not only by fishing and hunting, they modified the natural environment and created "terraces" to make it suitable for them to plant taro, gabi and other root crops.

Legends and stories about the Idyangs have been passed on though generations. However, they leave meager clues about their real function and origin. They must have given residents a sense of identity and safety, pretty much the same way subdivisions and compounds make us feel today. Fortunately, we no longer have to drop stones, poor cauldrons of boiling water or use forked sticks like the ancient people supposedly did to stop the enemy from climbing over the walls.

The journey to the undisturbed burial ground on the uninhabited island of Ivuhos is a timeless one. Vast grasslands and cliffs that plunge straight into the turquoise waters of the Balintang Channel is a breathtaking site. The final resting place of an unknown clan lies close to the beach. To a non-scientist, it may appear to be nothing more than a jumbled mass of limestone rocks. The chilling realization that every stone and coral is actually arranged in the shape of a boat and the quiet shadow of an abandoned Idyang looming nearby sends one’s heart beating with excitement.

During the 1995 excavation the complete skeletal remains of a child was found. At the same site in 1996, the 400-year-old bones of an adult male was found at another boat-shaped grave. The team from the National Museum discovered "a mound of regularly shaped limestone cobbles that were arranged one on top of the other, resembling an overturned boat." At this grave they found the skeletal remains of a male and a burial jar containing the bones of another adult male. After the excavations and recording of data, stones and everything else were returned to their exact positions.

It is apparent the archeologists unearthed the remnants of ancient boat builders and seafarers. At this point, excavations and studies are ongoing to confirm a connection between our ancestors from Batanes and the inhabitants of Orchid Island in Taiwan. Dizon and his team are tasked to piece together a cultural way of life and find answers to questions that continue to multiply.

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