There’s no denying how…um…geometrical the Bosnian pyramid looks. Four treecovered sides tapering to perfectly symmetrical point. Four triangular slopes with a square base, around which a town has thickly grown. This is Visoko, an otherwise pedestrian town in once war-torn central Bosnia, now infamous for the hill behind it.
They call it the the Pyramid of the Sun. In 2005, Semir Osmanagić, a businessman turned amateur archaeologist claimed to have found proof that the hills round Visoko were in fact ancient pyramids interconnected by tunnels and built by a 12,000 year old Bosnian civilization. There was proof – blocks of manmade concrete and a hidden corridor within, dated to the last ice age. Conspiracy theorists and Bosnian government officials alike jumped on the discovery, helping Osmanagić create an “archaeological park” in the town. Now Osmanagich is in the news again. The man dubbed “Indiana Jones” by locals claims to have discovered a human-hewn iron-rich sphere buried in the Bosnian forest, photos of which have gone viral over the weekend. Weighing thirty tons and three metres wide, proof of its human-origin would make it the largest man-made sphere in Europe.
I first heard of the Bosnian pyramids from a long-haired Englishman I met in Albania. He was an anthropologist conducting an ethnography of conspiracy theorist communities (best job title in the world). Purportedly the oldest manmade structure on the planet, these pyramids were a mere bus ride north of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, and drew hordes of truthers towards them. Osmanagić’s excavations supposedly unearthed slabs, mortar and blockwork which formed the outer surface of the pyramid. A quick google search revealed hundreds of converts and loony theories aplenty. My inner scientists balked. I had to see this. Even if just for the lolz.
In Visoko, I walked the winding streets up the hill, searching for the entrance to the excavation site. This was small-town Bosnia, the women wearing headscarves and the old men sat back with coffee watching the street go by. The dirt road zigged and zagged up the hill and I was panting by the time I reached the ticket office, where a guy my age was selling millennia-old glass from the ruins. I bought a discounted student ticket. “You are from Oxford?” said the attendant when I handed him my student card, hoping he wouldn’t see it was out of date. “We have many professors and physics scientists coming here from Oxford and the other best universities.” He then proceeded to give me an introductory lecture on the spiritual energy emanating from the pyramid.
Once I shook him off, I followed the path until it tapered into nothing. A tiny old woman sat on a rock smiled toothlessly at me and pointed at a steep set of stairs dug into the hillside. There were indeed slabs and blocks of concrete-like rock, sand-coloured and held up by tarpaulins. The digs did not look active. Beside each excavation site, there was a helpful sign talking about levitation beams, hidden civilisations and international scientific collaborations. I stumbled, the paths were steep and muddy, the pyramid brick and mortarwork shear and slippery. As for the individual excavations, they did not look systematic or well-maintained to me. Frankly, the whole experience was underwhelming. Given Osmanagić had managed to convince the cash-strapped Bosnian government and seemingly half the internet that he had discovered the biggest, oldest pyramids in the world, I was expecting something a bit more impressive than a hole in the ground filled with cracked sandstone…
Back down in the village, I debated whether to thumb a rode and visit the subterrenean part of the archaeological park, where my anthropologist friend claimed the guide took you deep into the stomach of the hill. Here the tunnels were extraordinary and it would not take much to believe it was the truth Osmanagić spoke. But I had to get to Belgrade by nightfall, and I resented having forked money over to these quack merchants already. I sat in a cafe and watched a youtube video of Osmanagić giving a guided tour of the tunnels. It was like truther bingo, with much talk of ritual energy and condemnations of “elite scientists,” held together by a suitably dramatic soundtrack. While Osmanagić claimed to only be “cleaning” out the tunnels, the wooden scaffolds suggested strongly to me that he himself was digging out and enlarging natural formations and chambers in the rock.
Osmanagić has indeed been roundly condemned by professional archaeologists, with the European Association of Archaeologists declaring the pyramid “a cruel hoax.” The Visoko region has seen ample geological research and is known to be formed of alternating layers of conglomerate, clay and sandstone. The hill is made of the same stuff, which once unearthed, were pressed into service by Osmanagić as concrete, pottery and pyramid slabs, respectively. The tunnels were gouged out of the hill by Osmanagić’s labourers, who have also worked to reconstruct the hillside to resemble a Mayan step pyramid, in the process endangering the actual medieval and classical archaeological on the hill. As for the Oxford archaeologist who advised on the dig, it turned out he was like me just a backpacking undergrad!
We should therefore treat Osmanagić’s latest widely-published claims of uncovering a manmade sphere with the contempt they deserve. In typical modest fashion, he claims the sphere “would be another proof that Southern Europe, Balkan and Bosnia in particular, were home for advanced civilizations from distant past and we have no written records about them.” He went on to suggest that “they knew the power of geometrical shapes, because the sphere is one of the most powerful shapes along with pyramidal and conical shapes.” Such appeals to the logic of the spheres are a hallmark of conspiracy theorists. In fact, Mandy Edwards, a geologist at Manchester University, suggested a more mundane explanation for the sphere – that it formed by concretion, where natural mineral cement precipipated within the spaces between sediment grains to create a compact mass of rock. But even if the rock is manmade – I can’t believe I have to say this – a secret 12,000 year old civilization and its associated made-up magical energy physics is not a necessary consequence of that.
From Visoko, I boarded the bus back to Sarajevo with a bad taste in my mouth. I felt bad for financially supporting Osmanagić charlatanry which has sucked up government funding, destroying the authentic archaeological heritage of Bosnia. When Osmanagić first announced his discovery, Bosnian Prime MInister Nedzad Brankovic said “we were told the world was laughing at us … but there is no government in the world that should stay quiet on things which are positive.” As my friend pointed out to me while I ranted about these so-called pyramids: I am Scottish, how many times on the way home in the Highlands have I passed the shores of Loch Ness and not blinked an eye at the statues of sea-monsters and multiple nessie visitor centres and signs advertising boat trips to find her. In a country where unemployment tops 40%, higher in places like Visoko, higher still among the young, is it really so bad to make a bit of dollar from the delusions of idiot foreign conspiracists?