THE inscription on the Calatagan pot — the country’s oldest cultural artifact with pre-colonial writing — is no longer shrouded in mystery.

University of the Philippines literature professor Dr. Ramon Guillermo’s latest attempt at decoding the said script is by far the most definitive after many scholars, including National Artist Guillermo Tolentino and French linguist Jean-Paul Potet, made unsuccessful trials.

The precolonial Calatagan pot

Using paleography, cryptography, and the “brute force” attack, Guillermo cracked the code and managed to decipher, though not complete, the symbols surrounding the mouth of the pot.

Guillermo’s study entitled “Ina Bisa Kata: An Experimental Decipherment of the Calatagan Pot Inscription” indicated that the writing, in modernized spelling, meant:

Ina bisa kata
Guna kita payaba
… saya …
Kita sana mabasah
Bagaikan bunga

(Mother can say
For you my beloved child/For our benefit beloved child
… I …
There we/you get wet
Like a flower)

Dating back between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Calatagan pot is one of the country’s most valuable cultural and anthropological artifacts. Twelve centimeters high, 20.2 centimeters wide, and weighing 872 grams, the pot was discovered by locals in an archaeological digging in Calatagan, Batangas in 1958.

The locals sold it for six pesos to an Alfredo Evangelista. The pot was then purchased by the Anthropological Foundation of the Philippines and donated to the National Museum.

Since its discovery, several experts have tried but failed to decipher the inscription. For one, Tolentino, known for his UP Oblation sculpture, used séance in interpreting the symbols, which resulted to:

Labag man nga lang (sa) aki’t (kalooban)
Kanino man, kay inaíy mag-alay,
gaano man ang kanyang kakailanganin, (sa kabila)
Aba! kanino man nga iyan galing,
labis ang ganyang ating
pakikinabangin (sa wakas) (na pagpapala ni Bathala).

(Though it may be against me and (my will)
Whoever, offer to mother
Whatever she may need (there beyond)
And from whoever that may have come from
We will benefit
Greatly from it (in the end) (with God’s grace).)

Tolentino, however, offered no explanation and his effort was ignored. Later, Potet in his doctoral dissertation, “Morphologie du Philippin,” provided a transliteration of the Calatagan writing. The symbols were identified by using familiar symbols from another script, based on the assumption that the script has the same characteristics.

Potet, together with other scholars who tried, like Juan Francisco, Antoon Postma, Harold Conklin, and Johannes de Casper, had not been able to come up with a transliteration, whether complete or partial.

UP literature professor Dr. Ramon Guillermo

Himself baffled, Guillermo started to take interest on the ancient pot when he was still an undergraduate student in UP. He recalled three problems that made it difficult to decipher the text:

  • The equivalents of most of the symbols are unknown.
  • The language/s composing the inscription is/are unknown, though the possibility of Tagalog or Mangyan has been posited.
  • Even if the symbols were successfully identified, the difficulties in determining the start and end of words and the determination of final consonants would be difficult.

In early March, Guillermo actually did release a complete interpretation of the script, which read:

Ina bisa kata
Guna kita payaba
Dulang saya kau kain
Dada yang ‘ni manogi
Kita sana mabasah
Bagai ke bunga

Its translation in Filipino is as follows:

Sinikap sabihin ni ina
Para sa iyo mahal kong anak
Kumain ka sa aking dulang
Dibdib ko ‘tong mabango
Doon ika’y mabasa
Tulad ng bulaklak

But Guillermo had doubts — of lines three and four in particular. Two weeks later, he released an updated version of his paper, containing the latest partial interpretation.

Guillermo concluded that his present study has shown, perhaps for the first time, the appearance of certain words in more or less plausible configurations in four lines of the Calatagan pot inscription. Above all, his study may help develop a productive technique to be used in the further analysis of the writing.

“It (the study) has however not been successful in producing a complete transliteration,” Guillermo emphasized.

Historian and anthropologist Zeus Salazar acknowledged Guillermo’s efforts, saying that the methods he used were scientific and technical enough that it made sense.

Salazar further studied Guillermo’s work and made his own translation of the text:

Ina, ikaw ang aking bisa
Dumalaga nating alaga
Banga’y kanyang nasipa
Si M/manugi ang may dala
Magbabasa tayo sana
Di nga ba, ng bunga.

Salazar arrived at his translation by referring to three keywords described in Guillermo’s first interpretation:

  • Dulay, a container used for fetching water
  • Tugi, a rootcrop, staple food of Austronesians in early times
  • Bunga, most important ingredient of nganga (chewing of betel nut)

Salazar noted that the script is a piece of poetry that may have been written to remember a loved one for whom the pot is used to fetch water. Or, the pot is used by a man when visiting the grave of his loved one in the ritual cleaning of the bones.

Through his work, Guillermo has opened a new avenue in studying Philippine history, anthropology, paleography, and prehispanic linguistics.

“For instance, the symbols will thus have been fully identified and it would thus show the various forms of the letters as they were known and used in prehistoric times,” acknowledged paleographer and Sanskrit expert Francisco. “The inscription is truly significant in the attempt to understand the many vague aspects of Philippine cultural history.”

12 Responses to Calatagan pot inscription no longer a mystery



March 29th, 2008 at 11:43 am

I couldn’t find an appropriate place elsewhere to leave a general comment, so I suppose this will do:

The ‘lemon-lime’ WordPress theme is pretty, but VERY, VERY hard to read for lack of contrast. My I suggest a different theme that’s easier on the eyes of us older folks? Or perhaps a change in text color? Thanks.

You folks are doing a great service for the People of the Philippines! Keep up the good (and brave) work!


ShadowDude (Tim)



March 29th, 2008 at 6:15 pm

The puzzle is far from solved. Salazar failed to discuss a few salient issues in his paper.

– Most Austronesian scripts (including the Tagalog baybayin and other Philippine syllabaries) are written either from left to right or down to up. The Calatagan inscription was written right to left (thus the imperfect spacing that saw symbols run off the vessel’s neck). “Mirror writing” does not sufficiency explain this.

– Most Austronesian scripts (such as the earlist known Philippine script, the 9th century AD Laguna Copperplate Script) trace their origins to the Old Kawi script. Salazar failed to discuss the Catalagan script’s relation to Old Kawi.

– The vessel’s date demains disputed. Was it made in the 12th century or much earlier?

– Salazar’s paper has yet to be fully assesed by a jury of his peers.

Until another artifact bearing similar markings turns up, any translation will a shot in the dark.

An afterthought. In another language, “Ina bisa kata” translates to “Mother, we want to…”



March 29th, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Additional ruminations.

– The Calatagan script, if it were to follow other Austronesian syllabaries, may have been written with the clay pot turned up-side down.

– Determining the actual language used by the pre-Hispanic Calatagan people presents another problem, as a Xaviet University study, “A Reconstruction of 15th Century Calatagan Community,” has pointed out that original Calatagan settlers have no direct link with the present population, who speak Batangan – a dialect of the Tagalog language.

– Wikipedia (or an editor I believe) erroneously identifies the Catalagan script as Tagalog baybayin. It is as Tagalog as Gloria speaking in “balid-balid” Kapampangan.


zeus a. salazar

March 29th, 2008 at 10:16 pm

Alin kayang papel ko ang kinokomentaryuhan ni “jojo” dahil ang tanging buong papel dito sa sayt ng pcij ay yaong kay bomen. ang huling bersyon ng aking panayam sa u.p. archaeological studies program ay matutunghayan ngayon kapwa sa at sa may mga komentaryo rin ako sa unang “final version” ng papel ni bomen sa mismong, kung saan mababasa rin ang nirebisang papel ni bomen. matutunghayan din ni “jojo” sa nabanggit na sayt ang mga datos tungkol sa pagpepetsa sa palayok ng calatagan at samakatuwid sa tulang nakaukit dito — i.e., sa pinakamaaga 2500-2000 B.K. (ayon sa pagpepetsa sa loog ng mismong palayok at, sa pinakamalapit sa ating panahon, sa pagitan ng 1000 at 1300 M.K., ayon sa pagpepetsa sa mga libingan sa calatagan. nabasa ko na rin ang nabanggit ni “jojo” na pag-aaral ng taga-cagayan de oro. hindi ko alam kung saan napulot nito na iba ang mga naninirahan noon sa calatagan o batangas. ang resulta ng glottokronolohiya ay nagpapakita na ang mga nakatira sa timog luzon (at sa buong “timog Pilipinas”) ay nagsasalita ng “mesopilipino” h.-k. 700 B.K. hanggang h.-k. 100 B.K. bago maghiwa-hiwalay ang Tagalog,Bikol at iba pang wikang “mesopilipino”(Thomas at Healey, 1962). Tungkol naman sa direksyon ng pagsusulat ng mga pilipino sa kanilang sulat-pantig o silabaryo, alam na nating buhat pa kay Rizal na sa iba’t ibang direksyon ito at depende sa pinagsusulatang materyal. Maganda siguro na basahin muna ni “jojo” ang papel ko, ang dalawang bersyon ng papel ni bomen at and aming palitang-kuro sa at, pagkatapos nito, sumulat din siya ng papel. siguro may panahon siya upang basahin ito sa susunod ng pagtitipon sa archaeological studies program ng u.p. makipag-ugnayan lamang po kay dr. grace barretto na siyang mag-oorganisa nito. magbabasa rin ng papel doon si etoy, propesor ng antropolohiya sa u.p. dadalo rin ako roon. zeus a. salazar



March 30th, 2008 at 12:08 pm

my apologies to mr salazar. i apparently mistook the guillermo paper i downloaded as your work.

there is no intention on my part to downplay your (and guillermo’s efforts) to decipher the script, but the PCIJ article leads off the story saying that the mystery has been solved. That was what I was wary of, as let me stress my point that any finding would be inconclusive until another artifact bearing a script similar to that of the calatagan pot turns up.

alas, the last time i wrote a paper was in 1999, on austronesian ethnolinguistics. i ruminate on the subject in my blog, from time to time, and when my work permits me to.

I would do so on the calatagan material if I am given the time (which sadly, these days, is rare given the 12-hour schedule in the office).

by the way, have your reviewed any new material regarding the Laguna copperplate? And has Dr. Eusebio Dizon given his input regarding your and bomen’s work on the calatagan pot?

again, no offense meant, mr. salazar. cheers.



March 30th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

yes, i will do try to attend your next paper presentation. thanks.



March 30th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Just a quick note regarding the dating of the material before I return to the minepits.

The 2500-2000 B.C. carbon dating is way off the mark I believe. First, samples taken from inside and outside the pot show a difference of plus-minus 500 years. Second, the large-scale Austronesian expansion from the Taiwan homeland (Cristian Capelli et al. “A Predominantly Indigenous Paternal Heritage for the Austronesian-Speaking Peoples of Insular Southeast Asia and Oceania”. American Journal of Human Genetics, 2001) into what is today Northern Luzon is estimated to have occurred in 3,500 B.C. (Bellwood) and their outward migration to most of the Indonesian archipelago and the South Pacific occurs 1,000 years later.

The Brahmi script, which is believed to be the source of all Asian scripts, made its appearance only in the 6th century BCE and its progeny Old Kawi (which gave rise to the Tagalog baybayin, Hanunóo, Buhid, Tagbanwa, and other Philippine scripts) appeared in Bali no earlier than 775 AD.

So where does the Catalagan pot and the material stand in the scheme of things? Robert Fox (1962) estimates a period of approximately 150 years before the arrival of the Spaniards (1521), inferring from the nature of the burial site where the pot was found.

As for the peopling of present-day Calatagan, Bernardo (1971) says: ” The present people of Calatagan are immigrants. There is no indication so far that the 15th century Calatagan people have a significant number of descendants in the peninsula. How this has happened is mystery; explanations are limited to speculations. Most of the immigrants are Tagalogs but there are others. The area of northern Calatagan was first opened up by Don Domingo Roxas during the period 1829 to 1843. Don Antonio Roxas took over in 1910. The opening of a sugar central attracted migrants in 1916. The Hacienda Calatagan had been maintained by the Zobel and Ayala families since 1929 up to 1957 when the area was subdivided and sold to the tenants”

I hope that cleared things up, Zeus. Cheers.


zeus a. salazar

March 30th, 2008 at 10:43 pm

mahal na jojo,

tinatanggap ko po ang inyong pagpapaumanhin. alam ko po yung dalawang pagpepetsa mula sa loob (2500-2000 BK) at mula sa labas (higit sa 6000 BK). mangyari pa, hindi katanggap-tanggap ang dalawa. ginamit ko lamang po ang 2000 BK bilang terminus ante quem habang ang 1000 MK – 1300 MK bilang terminus post quem — ang dalawang “quem” ay pagkukulong lamang sa maaaring “panahon” ng banga, dahil sa hindi pa nga klaro ang ating kaalaman hinggil dito. Iyung 1000 MK ay bagong datos mula sa pinakahuling paghuhukay ng Archaeological Studies Program ng U.P.

walang katuturan na sa usapin ng banga ng calatagan ang migrasyon ng mga austronesyano. tantiya ko nasa panahon tayo rito ng simula ng paghiwahiwalay ng mga wikang mesopilipino — i.e., ca. 100 BK patungong 1000 MK. maganda kung magkaroon kayo ng panahon upang matunghayan ang powerpoint ng aking panayam sa a.s.p. sa para magkaroon tayong simula ng pag-uusapan. mainam kung dito ninyo pasisimulan ang inyong mga komentaryo upang maiwasto ko sa konteksto ang inyong inaakalang mga pagkakamali sa pagtatantiya at konklusyon, prelimnaryo man o hindi.

nagpagawa na ng website si bong upang maakses niya ang talastasan hinggil sa banga ng calatagan sa hinihintay ko pa ang kanyang ambag. naunahan po ninyo, sa kabila ng pagiging abalang-abala ninyo sa inyong trabaho.

ang aking pagkakaintindi ng nasabi ninyo na hindi mga tagalog ang nakatira sa calatagan ay noong panahon ng mga libingan. mahirap tiyakin ito sa pamamagitan ng ating mga metodong arkeolohikal sa kasalukuyan. ito ang konteksto ng aking pagbanggit sa glottokronolohiya ng mga wikang Pilipino.

ikinagagalak kong magkakaroon kayo ng panahon upang makadalo sa susunod ng pagtitipon sa a.s.p. sinabi ko na kay ms. karol ilagan na isama kayo. lamang, sana handa rin kayong makipagtalastasan sa ating wika. sa katunayan, ito ang huling beses na babasahin at sasagutin ko ang inyong (mga) komentaryo sa ingles. maraming salamat sa inyong interes sa ating kalinangan. zeus a. salazar



April 9th, 2008 at 10:31 pm

For more information on the Calatagan Pottery Inscription issue, please view:


Karol Ilagan

September 3rd, 2008 at 6:17 pm

Ang Sulat sa Palayok: A symposium on deciphering the Calatagan pot script
October 1, 2008 (Wednesday), 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Recto Hall, Faculty Center, UP Diliman


The Daily PCIJ » Blog Archive » Visayan language gives pot writings new twist

May 13th, 2010 at 10:08 am

[…] years ago, Guillermo released a study on the pot’s inscriptions and on his work Paluga’s research took off. This time, however, the scholars considered the […]


Ben castillo de austria

June 6th, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Nananatiling enigma ang calatagan pot ,marami sa interpreter ay iniiba nila ang script,ginagawang kapampangan,bisaya at inihahambing sa iba pa,gawing letter by letter,at isalin sa salitang tagalog(kumintanes)tulad ng mga sinauna at matatalinghagang salita sa calatagan,ang palayok ng abo o labi ng isang namatay ay silbing talaan ng huling nangyari noong nabubuhay pa ang nasabing abo….tulad ng unang talata na isinalin letter by letter…

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