Chapter 15

Japanese and Their Earthen Jars Icon

March 1, 2022

From Nága I visited the cura of Libmánan (Ligmanan) who:

  • had poetical talent and a reputation of a natural philosopher
  • collected and named pretty beetles and shells
  • dedicated the most elegant little sonnets.

He favoured me with the following narrative :

In 1851, during the construction of a road a little beyond Libmánan, at a place called Poro, a bed of shells was dug up under 4 feet of mould, 100 feet distant from the river.

It consisted of Cyrenae (C. suborbicularis, Busch.), a species of bivalve belonging to the family of Cyclades which occurs only in warm waters.

  • It is extraordinarily abundant in the brackish waters of the Philippines.

At the depth of 1.5 to 3.5 feet we found numerous remains of:

  • the early inhabitants—skulls, ribs, bones of men and animals
  • a child’s thigh-bone inserted in a spiral of brass wire
  • several sťags’ horns
  • beautifully-formed dishes and vessels, some of them painted, probably of Chinese origin
  • striped bracelets, of a soft, gypseous, copper-red rock, glancing as if they were varnished*
  • small copper knives but no iron utensils
  • several broad flat stones bored through the middle† besides a wedge of petrified wood, embedded in a cleft branch of a tree.

What was not immediately useful was then and there destroyed. The remainder dispersed.

In spite of every endeavour, I could obtain, through the kindness of Herr Fociños in Nága, only one small vessel.

Similar remains of more primitive inhabitants have been found at the mouth of the Bígajo, not far from Libmánan, in a shellbed of the same kind.

An urn, with a human skeleton, was found at the mouth of the Pérlos, west of Sítio de Póro, in 1840.

At the time when I wrote down these statements of the pastor, neither of us was familiar with the discoveries made within the last few years relating to the lake dwellings (pile villages) ; or these notes might have been more exact, although probably they would not have been so easy and natural.


  • Probably pot-stone, which is employed in China in the manufacture of cheap ornaments. Gypseous refers probably only to the degree of hardness.
  • In the Christy collection, in London, I saw a stone of this kind from the

A third of the size of the vessel represented ; wrich, with the exception of the base, is covered with a salad-green glaze.

Mr. W. A. Franks examined the vessel and thinks it is Chinese of very great antiquity, without, however, being able to determine its age more exactly.

A learned Chinese of the Burlingame Embassy expressed himself to the same effect.

He knew only of one article, now in the British Museum, which was brought from Japan by Kämpfer, the colour, glazing, and cracks in the glazing, of which (craquelés) corresponded precisely with mine.

According to Kämpfer, the Japanese found similar vessels in the sea.

  • They value them very highly for preserving their tea in them.

Schiffer Islands, employed in a contrivance for the purpose of protection against rats and mice. A string being drawn through the stone, one end of it is suspended from the ceiling of the room, and the objects to be preserved hang from the other. A knot in the middle of the string prevents its sliding below that point, and, every touch drawing it from its equilibrium, it is impossible for rats to climb upon it. A similar contrivance used in the Viti Islands, but of wood, is figured in the Atias to Dumont D’Urville’s “ Voyage to the South Pole" (i. 95).

Morga writes :

“On this island, Luzon, particularly in the provinces of Manila, Pampanga, Pangasinan, and Ilócos, very ancient clay vessels of a dark brown colour of a sorry appearance are found by the natives. Some are of a middling size, and others smaller, marked with characters and stamps. They are unable to say either when or where they obtained them. But they are no longer to be acquired, nor manufactured in the Philippines.
The Japanese drink the root of a herb as hot Tscha (tea). It is a great delicacy and of medicinal efficacy to the kings and lords in Japan. It can only be effectively preserved in these vessels which are so highly esteemed all over Japan. They value them so highly that they overlay them externally with fine gold embossed with great skill, and enclose them in cases of brocade. Some of these vessels are valued at and fetch from 2,000 tael to 11 reals. The Philippine natives purchase them from the Japanese at very high rates. They take much pains to search for them because of their value. But only a few are now found because of this demand."

In 1597, Carletti went from the Philippines to Japan. The passengers on board were examined by order of the governor and threatened with capital punishment if they concealed certain earthen vessels which were wont to be brought from the Philippines as the king wished to buy them all.. These vessels were worth as much as 5,000 to 10,000 scudi each. But they were not permitted to demand for them more than one Giulio (about a half Paolo).”

In 1615, Carletti met with a Franciscan who was sent as ambassador from Japan to Rome, who assured him that he had seen 130,000 scudi paid by the king of Japan for such a vessel.

Carletti also alleges, as the reason for the high price, “ that the leaf cia or tea, the quality of which improves with age, is preserved better in those vessels than in all others. The Japanese besides know these vessels by certain characters and stamps.

They are of great age and very rare, and come only from:

  • Cambodia
  • Siam
  • South Vietnam
  • the Philippines
  • other neighbouring islands.

From their external appearance they would be estimated at 3-4 quatrini (two dreier).

The king and princes of Japan:

  • have many of these vessels
  • prize them as their most valuable treasure and above all other rarities
  • boast of their acquisitions
  • from motives of vanity strive to outvie one another in the number of pretty vessels which they possess."*

Many travellers mention vessels found likewise amongst the Dyaks and the Malays in Borneo, which, from superstitious motives, were estimated at most exaggerated figures, amounting sometimes to many thousand dollars.

St. John † relates that the Datu of Tamparuli (Borneo) gave rice to the value of almost £700 for a jar, and that he possessed a second jar of almost fabulous value, which was about two feet high, and of a dark olive green.

The Datu fills both jars with water, which, after adding plants and flowers to it, he dispenses to all the sick persons in the country. But the most famous jar in Borneo is that of the Sultan of Brunei, which not only possesses all the valuable properties of the other jars but can also speak.

St. John did not see it, as it is always kept in the women’s apartment; but the sultan, a credible man, related to him that the jar howled dolefully the night before the death of his first wife, and that it emitted similar tones in the event of impending misfortunes. St. John is inclined to explain the mysterious phenomenon by a probably peculiar form of the mouth of the vessel, in passing over which the air-draught is thrown into resonant verberations, like the Æolian harp. The vessel is generally enveloped in gold brocade, and is uncovered only when it is to be consulted ; and hence, of course, it happens that it speaks only on solemn occasions. St. John states further that the Bisayans used formerly to bring presents to the sultan ; in recognition of which they received some water from the sacred jar to sprinkle over their fields and thereby ensure plentiful harvests. When the sultan was asked whether he would sell his jar for £20,000, he answered that no offer in the world could tempt him to part with it.

  • “ Carletti’s Voyages," ii. 11. + Life in the Forests of the Far East," i. 300.

Morga’s description suits neither the vessel of Libmánan nor the jar of the British Museum, but rather a vessel brought from Japan a short time ago to our Ethnographical Museum. This is of brown clay, small but of graceful shape, and composed of many pieces cemented together; the joints being gilt and forming a kind of network on the dark ground.