A long time ago, in a land far, far away… at least that’s how a good tall tale should begin. And, in many ways, it might be fitting for this tall tale of “great pyramids” in Bosnia to start as this was one of the first pseudoarchaeological notions that I ever commented on publicly and debated with several privately. In the small but gorgeous city of Visoko in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are several hills—small mountains if you will, which are pyramid-shaped. The Visoko region has been continuously occupied for the last 6000 or more years with rich Neolithic sites, one of which is called Okolište, estimated to have once been the home of as many as 3,000 people in the Neolithic (4700-4500 BCE). Aside from having one of the largest known Neolithic settlements, Visoko was also a Roman province known as Illyricum at around 9 CE. Roads and fortresses of Roman origin can still be found in the region. It was in medieval times that the city obtained its current name, which comes from the Visoki Castle and the medieval town of Visoki, which protected Podvisoki, one of the primary centers for trade in medieval Bosnia. Later (1463-1878 CE), the Ottoman Empire conquered the region, establishing a predominantly Muslim culture. In the 20th century, war found its way to Visoko several times, but perhaps none, not even two world wars, so brutally affected Visoko as the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
The Bosnian War greatly affected the economy of the early 21st century in Visoko as the estimated economic damage was over $200 million for the Visoko region, which probably does not fully take into account the hundreds of thousands of people killed, injured, and disabled by the conflict throughout the Bosnian nation. Much of Visoko’s industry and infrastructure was destroyed in the last decade of the 20th century, with a rebuilding in the first decade of the 21st century of not only buildings and industry, but of hearts and minds. So when a charismatic and sensational figure of Bosnian decent arrives and appears to represent the archaeological community with great claims that the largest pyramids in the world—the most fantastic of monumental architecture known to the world—have been right in Visoko for centuries, governmental heads turned.
Semir Osmanagic quickly became a media sensation in 2005 when he traveled to Visoko and noticed that the shape of Visocica Hill very much resembled a pyramid, at least from certain geographic perspectives. His claims brought worldwide attention and even Nightline, the American news series, covered it in great detail. Among Osmanagic’s claims were that a total of five pyramids were built in antiquity in the Visoko region, grown over after centuries of disuse, but larger and more significant than the pyramids in Egypt in part because they were older. Osmanagic claims they may be as old as 12,000 BCE. And, of course, he named them: Pyramids of the Sun, Moon, Dragon, Earth, and Love.
Osmanagic, as a pseudoarchaeologist, is of special note for a couple of reasons. First, he appealed readily to a nationalist need to have something to be proud of at a time when Visoko and Bosnia were economically and socially vulnerable. The world attention Visoko was getting was not focused on bombs, bodies, and the bedlam of war. Instead, cameras were pointed at the one commodity Bosnians could already be proud of: its beautiful countryside. And he was giving them something else to be proud of, which was to potentially have the “first,” “largest,” and “oldest” examples of monumental architecture in the world. In the ways Cairo, Teotihuacan, and Angkor Wat put Egypt, Mexico, and Cambodia on the map for tourists, the “Bosnian Pyramids” were poised to do the same for Visoko and Bosnia. The second special note Osmanagic gets is that he is one of the few to make pseudoarchaeological claims and act on them to the degree he has. In modern times, many raise funds to go on “expeditions” in search of things like Noah’s Ark, Shangri La, and various “lost” cities, but they generally have no negative net impact on the environments they “explore.” But every once in a while, the pseudoarchaeologist—someone with an archaeological claim based on little to no evidence, comes along and acts on their claims by “excavating.” Semir Osmanagic is arguably the worse offender of this practice in the last 20 years. It has been said that Osmanagic is endangering both prehistoric and historic sites with his attempts to excavate. At times, this included the removal of topsoil with bulldozers to get at the bedrock below. Bedrock that presents as natural geologic formations but, because of his lack of experience and training, he interprets as poured concrete blocks and slabs which make up the walls of his so-called pyramids. In the process of exposing bedrock and essentially creating the pyramids out of natural geology, Osmanagic and his team have very likely removed actual archaeological artifacts and features from their contexts. Archaeology is a destructive process and, as such, archaeologists follow strict procedures when it comes to discovery. It is always assumed that future archaeologists will develop better methods and if a site is not in imminent danger of loss (such as with flooding a basin after a dam is constructed, development of housing as neighborhoods expand, etc.) then sites are usually not completely excavated. When time permits, they are done painstakingly slow—literally inch by precious inch with each bucket of dirt sifted through screens to remove the tinniest of artifacts. Stains in soil are followed and mapped to determine where post holes, middens, and hearths were once positioned.
What Osmanagic appears to be doing is quite the opposite of what a trained and seasoned archaeologist would plan. His excavations are blindingly quick, reports of his methods are largely unavailable, and he seems to be creating that which he seeks. Osmanagic appears to have started with a set of conclusions and appears to fit all his work to them. Tunnels that he reports as running underneath the site have the appearance of being created by he and his team. The matrix removed from the tunnels has been reported to be indistinguishable from the tunnel walls by many who have visited. It has even been suggested that examples of writing or inscriptions alleged to have found were placed after excavation. Alleged stone blocks and poured concrete “walls” of pyramids appear to be natural sandstone and conglomerate formations when described by geologists and archaeologists that have visited the site.
There is no doubt that real archaeological sites exist within these hills; that genuine artifacts and features are to be found from historic times, back through the medieval Roman period, and perhaps as far back as the Neolithic or before. It may even be that the examples of writing found as inscriptions mentioned above are genuine. But without contexts and the careful, meticulous documentation that comes with a genuine archaeological project, they are meaningless. They might as well be invented for all the worth they retain. Osmanagic has created an air of theater and spurious significance around him, which immediately casts all that he does and finds in doubt. Quite simply, it cannot be trusted to be true. This is where careful planning and meticulous documentation comes into play: by ensuring that the appropriate experts are on hand, that features are excavated scientifically and step-by-step, and that each step is photographed, sketched, and recorded on paper and that each feature and artifact is measured and mapped, a chain of custody and provenance is created.
In the next part, I’ll go over the core claims surrounding the Bosnian Pyramid Hoax
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