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The Butuan Ivory Seal

by Hector Santos
© 1996 by Hector Santos
All rights reserved.

Butuan Ivory Seal Shown on the right is an ivory seal from Butuan. The upper representation is how a wax impression from the tool would look like. The lower view shows the face of the ivory seal except that it has been flipped (mirror image) to show the writing in its correct orientation. The combination of the positive impression and the negative but flipped view gives a better idea of what the writing looks like than either one alone.

The ivory seal's provenance is unknown to me. Antoon Postma reports that it was shown to him by Dr. Angel Bautista in 1990 at a conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He says that the seal was in Bautista's custody but does not know whether it belonged to the National Museum or not.

The writing is stylized Kavi, each letter being fitted into an oblong box so that it appears distorted. Postma states that the script is similar to that on the inscription of Puh Serang near Kediri dated 1002. He further indicates that the writing says "Butban," which presumably stands for "Butwan" or "Butuan" since b and w are frequently interchangeable.

If this is correct, the three symbols need to transliterate as bu, t-ba, and n. Although I am not very familiar with this specific variation of the script, I find it hard to see the medial form of u in the first symbol and the t-ba ligature in the second symbol.

However, I find it interesting that the two smaller symbols are of a different style from the three main symbols. These are the symbols located immediately under the first two of the three larger symbols. (Postma took these to be the medial form of u and part of the second symbol which should be a ligature.)

Because they are not stylized to look square and are much thinner than the upper symbols, I thought that they could have been written in a script different from the main and larger symbols. As a matter of fact, if we turn the seal around 180 degrees, this is what it will look like:


The smaller symbols can now be read as ba-wa (or bat-wan or some other combination) in a script similar to Tagbanwan. If there was a diacritic under the first symbol, it would read but-wan or "Butuan!"

Is it possible that the "missing" diacritic got worn out? A closer inspection of the ivory seal would prove whether this speculation is warranted or not.

Could the seal have employed two different scripts in use then? It would create quite a stir if such can be proven because the Tagbanwan script, or at least something similar, would have been known to the people of Butuan. The script has similarities to the Tagalog script but has never been found outside Palawan.

Postma now maintains that the main symbols could be read as i-bu-tba-n (distorted) or even as mnA-tba-n or pnA-tba-n.

Even if this were correct, the first symbol would still be a long way from being a bu. To me reading but-ban on the seal would be stretching credibility a little too much. On the other hand, it may also be just a coincidence that the lower symbols look like but-wan in another script. However, that is my guess at this time.

Or does Postma read but-ban and I, but-wan, because they are what we desperately want the symbols to be?

Additional Reading

  1. Santos, Hector. "Artifacts with writing revisited" in Sulat sa Tans˘, 2:5 (June 1995), 1.
  2. -----. "I see Butwan, you see Butban" in Sulat sa Tans˘, 2:5 (June 1995), 5.
  3. -----. "Other pre-Hispanic writing artifacts" in Sulat sa Tans˘, 2:2 (February 1995), 1.
  4. -----. "The Butuan Ivory Seal" in Sulat sa Tans˘, 2:2 (February 1995), 1-2.

Other Mysterious Philippine Scripts

To cite:
Santos, Hector. "The Butuan Ivory Seal" in A Philippine Leaf at http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/mystery/seal.htm. US, October 26, 1996.
Sushi Dog
Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.
Hector Santos <hectorsan@bibingka.com> Los Angeles
Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 1999