This story has been around a while now, but I’ve been ignoring it for reasons I don’t fully understand, although I have suspicions that ought to become clear. The first anyone heard about supposed pyramids in Bosnia was in 2005, following a series of high profile public announcements based on a story carried by the popular Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz. This ought instantly to set alarm bells ringing, as this is a typical tactic employed by pseudoscientists: rather than try out your new ideas on your peers (or, in the case of a discovery made by someone who is an amateur in a particular field, on acknowledged experts), you go straight to the mass media to instil your ideas in popular imagination. In that way, when the real experts begin to raise awkward questions, you can claim that they are trying to suppress your revolutionary ideas.
The origin of the hypothesis
Whose idea was it? According to the Wikipedia page on Semir Osmanagić, Senad Hodović, the director (muzejski savjetnik – direktor) of the cultural and historic heritage museum (Zavičajni muzej) in Visoko (Bosna i Hercegovina), first contacted him about the site. There is little information about Senad Hodović available on the web: most of it relates to the pyramid claims. However, the museum’s own website (which is entirely in Serbo-Croat, a language I do not speak: the language button in the header is not working), appears not to deal with the pyramids at all, although there is plenty of conventional archaeology as well as social history, art and folk life on display on its pages. We must leave the question of Professor Hodović’s involvement as an open question.
If he did approach Semir Osmanagić in the first instance, though, we should ask ourselves why he would choose to involve a metalworking contractor of Bosnian origin but living in Houston (Texas, USA) to investigate a potential archaeological puzzle. Although the Wikipedia entry for him describes him as an amateur archaeologist, his involvement in archaeology appears to date only from shortly before his interest in the formations around Visoko, to judge from his list of publications. It is entirely possible, of course, that the Wikipedia entry is in error and that it was Osmanagić who first contacted the museum.
The hypothesis itself
In brief, Osmanagić claims to have identified six ancient pyramids in the landscape around Visoko, of which the best known is the one he calls Bosanska Piramida Sunca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun”), otherwise known as the hill of Visočica. This is a flatiron formation, standing some 341 m above the valley to its east, although its peak is only 77 m above the plateau to the west. He has named the five other sites Bosanska Piramida Mjeseca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon”, the hill of Plješivica Hrašće), Piramida bosanskog Zmaja (“Pyramid of the Bosnian Dragon”, the hill of Bučki Gaj), Bosanska Piramida Ljubavi (“Bosnian Pyramid of Love”, the hill at Četnica), Hram majke Zemlje (“Temple of Mother Earth”, the hill at Krstac) and Šesta Piramida (“Sixth Pyramid”, the hill at Vrela).
In initial press releases, the impression was given that a date of c 12,000 BCE was being suggested for the construction of the pyramids. When questioned, Semir Osmanagić clarified that he meant that they were constructed by the indigenous Illyrian population, whose culture he believes he can trace back to the Late Upper Palaeolithic of the region. It should be noted that this early date runs counter to the views of mainstream archaeologists who see Illyrian ethnogenesis as belonging to the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age, around 1000 BCE, while Classical writers located the people in coastal Dalmatia, not central Bosnia. Nevertheless, while Osmanagić has conceded that the pyramids could have been constructed as late as 500 BC, he seems a little ambivalent about so late a dating and still prefers to talk in terms of c 12,000 BCE.
Unlike a lot of Bad Archaeologists, he has actually gone out into the field and excavated sites to retrieve evidence in support of his hypothesis. This is unusual and he deserves respect for actually being prepared to put his ideas to the test. He claims to have detected evidence for artificiality in the pyramids. This consists of the identification of stone paving, terraces, tunnels, blocks and cement. This is the sort of evidence that would convince sceptical archaeologists of human activity in at least modifying natural geological formations to create pyramid forms. Why, then has the archaeological community failed to endorse his hypothesis?
Poor quality evidence
It’s the nature of the data unearthed by Semir Osmanagić that has not impressed archaeologists around the world. During late 2005 and early 2006, Osmanagić mkade statements to the media about the involvement of other archaeologists from around the world, who would bring scientific credibility to his excavations. Unfortunately, several of those named by him denied any involvement in the project (one, Royce Richards, even describes his alleged involvement as “a big load of bollocks”), others (such as prehistorian Anthony Harding) who visited the site failed to see any evidence for artificiality, while yet others (such as Egyptologist Nabil Swelim) failed to present convincing evidence or left the project after discovering it to be a sham.
One of those who might have been expected to uphold Osmanagić’s hypotheses was Robert Schoch of Sphinx-more-ancient-than-Egyptologists-claim notoriety. However, after visiting the excavations in 2006, he declared that all he saw was interesting geology. That is certainly the impression given by photographs published in documents available from Osmanagić’s website, which is public front of his Fondacija Bosanska Piramida Sunca (“Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation”). The foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of (American) dollars to carry out its research, at a time when Bosnian archaeology is poorly funded and many monuments in the country are at risk following the devastation of the 1990s war.
An amazing resource for debunking the claims of those who promote Osmanagić’s ideas is Le Site d’Irna (it can be read in French, English and Serbo-Croat). Irna has collected just about everything you need to work your way out of the morass of claim and counter-claim about the “Bosnian Pyramids”. There is no real need for me to examine the “Bosnian Pyramids” in detail: everything you need is there.
Interestingly, the web has been the downfall of the claims about these so-called pyramids. In an earlier age, it was relatively easy to promote ludicrous ideas through traditional media and not have them subject to detailed scrutiny. The traditional press still seems to work this way: the lazy churning of press releases with minimal, if any, fact checking is a regular feature of even the quality press, and this is exactly what happened with Osmanagić’s original story. But it was being promoted just as bloggers were beginning to pick up the gauntlet and do the fact checking that journalists so often fail to do. It was bloggers who questioned those professional archaeologists who were said to be working on and even endorsing the sites; it was bloggers who began to unravel the mass of poor data being used in support of the hypothesis; it was the rapid sharing of genuine data around the web that showed how flawed the claims were; it was bloggers who flagged up the curious ideas that Semir Osmanagić has brought to bear on other archaeological questions (of which, more below). While the web is often derided by its critics as being largely populated either by pornography or by conspiracy theories, the advent of more interactive web technologies has taken us into an era in which genuine experts are able to contest the claims of pseudoscientists and fraudulent ‘alternative scholars’.
We can gauge something of Semir Osmangić’s understanding of the past from his publications and from his other website, Alternativna Historija (“Alternative History”). Although most of the site is written in Serbo-Croat, it includes the English version of his book The World of the Maya, which gives a flavour of his interpretive framework. He states that “the Maya should be considered watchmakers of the cosmos whose mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation”. What on earth does this mean? Vibrations, of course, are a staple of pseudoscience, which pseudoscientists seem unwilling to define more rigorously or to explain how they can be detected. We are treated to discourses on the (fraudulent) crystal skulls, Atlantis and the Pleiadean origin of the Maya people. This is a long way from archaeology, even the shoddiest amateur archaeology! We are without doubt in the murky realm of Bad Archaeology.
Despite the implausibility of his claims about the “Bosnian Pyramids”, Semir Osmanagić has become something of a celebrity archaeologist in Bosna i Hercegovina, especially as one who can be called on to investigate unusual claims. A recent story (in Serbo-Croat, I’m afraid) involves an unemployed soldier, Šemsudin Begović, who claims to have discovered a billion-year-old fossilised human footprint. Ignored by most archaeologists, anthropologists and museum professionals, he has gone to the press, asking for Semir Osmanagić to validate it. Osmanagić has become something of a hero for Bosnian nationalists, whom they believe to have shown the venerable antiquity of Illyrian culture, making it the mother civilisation of the planet. This, I think, is the secret of his success.
The late twentieth-century history of Bosna i Hercegovina was not a happy one. Torn apart by the civil wars that accompanied the breaking apart of Yugoslavia (a creation of the twentieth century), it saw invasions by Croatian armies from the north-west and a desperate attempt by Serbian nationalists to retain control over what they regarded as “their” territory. Add to this the religious dimension (the Croatians are mostly Roman Catholic, the Serbians Orthodox) and the creation of ethnic tensions with the majority Moslem population of Bosnia, the appalling years of “ethnic cleansing” (a term invented for the mass murder of Bosnian Moslem men and boys) left a country devastated by internal and external tensions. Bosna i Hercegovina is yet to recover properly from this. If Semir Osmanagić is trying to use the heritage of his homeland as a means of reconciliation and fostering a sense of national pride, then he is to be admired. If, however, he sees a situation in which he can profit and make himself famous, then he is to be despised.
It’s my uncertainty about his motives that has held me back from writing about this fraud.