In the continuing celebration of Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa, Trowel Tuesday by the National Museum of the Philippines features the word “binga”, a Bicol-Visayan term for bailer shell, and the artifacts made from it.
Bailer shell snails (genus Melo) are marine gastropods that dwell along the reefs of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region. Their shells are characterized by a large egg-like form with a wide elongated opening or aperture. The most commonly found bailer shells in the Philippines are the crowned bailer shells (Melo broderipii), locally known among the Bisaya and Bicolano as binga or bingag.
Binga shells are also been manufactured into concave-shaped objects in the past. Known as scoops or dippers, these shell artifacts were found mostly in Central Philippine sites around the period before the appearance of pottery in the archipelago 4,000 years ago, until the Metal Age at least 1,500 years ago. They are produced by carefully removing the ventral portion of the shell beside the aperture and its inner spiral column or columella, creating a bowl-like form. The exact usage of these shell scoops has not been fully explored, although it was assumed to function as vessels or containers for their deep concave shape. Since mainly recovered in burial sites, they were also seen as funerary items. The earliest pieces of evidence of shell scoops were recovered from a burial at Ille Cave and Rockshelter in northern Palawan, dated 2469–2175 Before Common Era (BCE). Bailer shell scoops were also found in the Tabon Caves in Palawan, Cagraray Site in Albay, and Kalanay Cave in Masbate, among others.
The evidence of bailer shell scoops in Philippine archaeological sites attests to the ingenuity and complexity of shell tool manufacture by our ancestors. Their knowledge of the binga shell’s physical and material structure allowed them to develop manufacturing techniques that would form the shell scoop – an artifact of value both in life and in death.
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