[Time Trowel] Yamashita gold is a myth, and treasure hunting is not archeology

Stephen Acabado

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[Time Trowel] Yamashita gold is a myth, and treasure hunting is not archeology
'Differentiate between the pursuits of archaeology and treasure hunting.... Support local archaeological projects, advocate for stronger heritage protection laws, and participate in community-based initiatives that celebrate and protect our shared history.'

A trowel (/ˈtraʊ.əl/), in the hands of an archaeologist, is like a trusty sidekick – a tiny, yet mighty, instrument that uncovers ancient secrets, one well-placed scoop at a time. It’s the Sherlock Holmes of the excavation site, revealing clues about the past with every delicate swipe.

“Did you find gold yet?” “How about the golden Buddha and the gold bars?” These are the kinds of questions we usually get asked during our archaeological projects. It doesn’t help that treasure hunter groups sometimes start their activities right when we’re doing our field excavations.

This happened in July 2017, when the Bicol Archaeological Project crew was in Camaligan, Camarines Sur. While we were just starting our excavations at the old Catholic cemetery in Sto. Domingo, the local government unit (LGU) asked for advice about a treasure-hunting group digging just a couple of hundred meters away from our site.

The allure of hidden treasures and the thrill of discovery have fascinated humanity for centuries. From tales of pirates burying gold on deserted islands to legends of lost cities filled with untold riches, the idea of treasure hunting has captivated our imaginations. It’s no wonder that archaeology – the scientific study of human history through material remains – gets roped into this treasure-hunting fantasy.

This is especially true in popular media (remember Indiana Jones?), where archaeologists are often depicted as adventurers in search of priceless artifacts. But, spoiler alert, archaeology isn’t all about finding gold; it’s about digging deep into our past to understand our present and help us prepare for the future.

Legends are fun, but…

In the Philippines, the legend of Yamashita’s Treasure epitomizes this complex interplay between archaeology and treasure hunting. As we investigate the origins of this myth and the misconceptions it perpetuates, we’ll explore how focusing on heritage preservation and strong heritage laws can rectify these misunderstandings and promote a deeper appreciation of history.

The legend of Yamashita’s Treasure, named after Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, remains one of the most captivating and controversial stories of hidden wealth. According to the stories, during World War II, Japanese forces looted a vast amount of gold and valuables from occupied territories in Southeast Asia and hid them in secret locations across the Philippines.

Despite numerous claims and countless treasure hunting expeditions, there is no verifiable evidence to support the existence of this treasure. This legend, however, highlights a significant issue: the conflation of archaeology with treasure hunting, which undermines the meaningful purpose of archaeological endeavors and the importance of heritage.

There was one famous, but unverified, case, though. In 1988, Rogelio Roxas, a Filipino treasure hunter, sued former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Roxas alleged that Marcos had stolen part of the treasure he discovered. He claimed to have found a golden Buddha and several gold bars, which were seized by Marcos’ men. While a Hawaiian court ruled in favor of Roxas’ estate, the exact nature and quantity of the treasure remain unsupported​.

So, while the thought of uncovering a chest full of gold is thrilling, professional archaeologists know that the true treasures lie in the stories and knowledge unearthed from the past. The myths and legends are fun, but it’s the history that really matters.

Archaeology vs treasure hunting

The persistent myth of Yamashita’s Treasure illustrates a broader issue: the public’s misunderstanding of archaeology as a treasure-hunting endeavor. Treasure hunting is driven by the pursuit of monetary gain or the thrill of discovering valuable artifacts. In contrast, archaeology is a scientific discipline focused on understanding human history and culture through the study of material remains.

Archaeologists employ systematic methods to excavate and analyze artifacts, aiming to understand past societies, their behaviors, and their interactions with the environment. The goal is to gain insights into human history, not to profit from the findings. Treasure hunting, with its emphasis on profit, often results in the destruction of valuable archaeological contexts and the loss of crucial historical information.

The last stand of General Tomoyuki Yamashita took place in Kiangan, Ifugao, where he ultimately surrendered to the allied forces on September 2, 1945, marking the end of Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. Thus, when we commenced our archaeological work in Ifugao, we were initially met with suspicion and skepticism by the community.

However, the dynamic shifted meaningfully as the community began to engage with us and partnered with us in the research program. This collaborative approach not only encouraged trust but also ensured that the research was conducted in a manner respectful of local traditions and knowledge, ultimately leading to more meaningful and impactful outcomes.


Impact of treasure hunting on archaeology

Treasure hunting significantly impacts archaeology and heritage preservation in several detrimental ways.

First, it leads to the destruction of context. Archaeological sites are meticulously documented to preserve the context in which artifacts are found, as this context provides essential information about the artifact’s use, cultural significance, and historical period. However, treasure hunting, in its haste to find valuable items, often destroys these contexts, rendering the artifacts less informative and reducing their historical value.

Second, treasure hunting fuels looting and illicit trade. The demand for valuable artifacts drives looting and the illicit trade of cultural property, depriving communities of their cultural heritage and funding criminal activities, which perpetuates cycles of exploitation and violence.

Lastly, there is a significant loss of heritage. When artifacts are removed from their original locations without proper documentation, the cultural and historical heritage of the community is eroded. The artifacts lose their connection to the local narrative and become mere commodities.

Valuing heritage, engaging the community

To address the misconceptions associated with archaeology and treasure hunting, it is crucial to emphasize the value of heritage and its role in developing and strengthening self-esteem within communities. Heritage comprises the traditions, values, and historical narratives that shape a community’s identity and sense of belonging.

One effective approach is through education and awareness. Educating the public about the differences between archaeology and treasure hunting is essential. Highlighting the scientific methods used in archaeology and the importance of preserving context can help people appreciate the discipline’s true purpose. Public lectures, educational programs, and media campaigns can raise awareness about the value of heritage and the need to protect it. More importantly, community involvement plays a vital role. Partnering with local communities in archaeological projects can promote a sense of ownership and pride in their heritage.

When communities are engaged in the preservation and interpretation of their history, they are more likely to protect and celebrate their cultural assets. Community-based archaeology projects can provide opportunities for local communities to participate in excavations, conservation efforts, and the creation of heritage museums.

Heritage tourism can also offer economic benefits while promoting the conservation of cultural sites. By showcasing archaeological sites and artifacts in a respectful and educational manner, heritage tourism can attract visitors and generate revenue for local communities. This, in turn, can fund further preservation efforts and provide livelihoods for residents; a successful heritage conservation program is one that provides income to community members. 

Lastly, strong legislation and enforcement are necessary to combat looting and the illicit trade of cultural property. Countries must work together to implement and enforce international conventions, such as the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It is fortunate that the National Commission for Culture and the Arts has placed a moratorium on issuing treasure hunting permits. This ban should be made permanent.

To truly appreciate and preserve our cultural heritage, it is imperative to differentiate between the pursuits of archaeology and treasure hunting. We invite you to join us in this mission by learning about the scientific and respectful approach to uncovering our past. Support local archaeological projects, advocate for stronger heritage protection laws, and participate in community-based initiatives that celebrate and protect our shared history. Together, we can ensure that the stories and artifacts of our ancestors are preserved with the dignity and care they deserve, improving our understanding of history for generations to come. – Rappler.com

Stephen Acabado is professor of anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles. He directs the Ifugao and Bicol Archaeological Projects, research programs that engage community stakeholders. He grew up in Tinambac, Camarines Sur. Follow him on IG @s.b.acabado.

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