23/04/2006 : Trampling history
Researchers have unearthed geometrically cut stone slabs in Bosnia that they said could form part of the sloping surface of what they believe is an ancient pyramid beneath a huge hill.
Archeologists and other experts began digging at the central Bosnian town of Visoko last week to explore the theory that the 2,120-foot hill covers a step pyramid, which would be the first found in Europe.
—Stone Slabs May Be Part of a Pyramid in Bosnia in the LA Times… yes, that’s the normally sorta reputable LA Times. Credit where it’s due: note ‘they believe’ in the lead, ‘may’ in the headline. A bit of sane hedging, if you’re paying attention. But still, the claims of the ‘research team’ got some coverage. And, from the search results, there’s a lot of that, looking round the world, and a lot of awfully exciting heads and leads. We’ve got ‘Experts find evidence of Bosnia pyramid’, an AP story in the Boston Globe, also repeated in the Post and elsewhere. And the tone is fairly typical in those: a bit of hedging, but the overall message is: these are experts, and they believe they’re onto something… And something spectacular.
I’m a bit of an ancient history enthusiast, sort of a side-effect of other things I know and do. Stuff like this, it gets my pulse up, sure. Especially when the ‘archaeologist’ speaking for this group is making claims that the thing is 12,000 years old…
Yep. 12,000 years old. For anyone who doesn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the claim, that would make it more than twice as old as the oldest of the Egyptian pyramids (which come on the scene sometime around 2,800 years BCE)… and, umm, for that matter, more than twice as old as Stonehenge (2,500 BCE, if you’re just interested in the standing stones), almost twice as old as the oldest known astronomically aligned megalith (at Nabta, in Egypt, 4,000 to 4,500 BCE, and yep, this guy also claims his alleged Bosnian pyramid is aligned to the points of the compass)… and, well, 4,000 to 6,000 years before the earliest cities (depending a bit, on what counts as a city and whom you believe)…
I had three thoughts, in quick succession, coming across these reports. They were, roughly, (i) wow, what am I drinking? (ii) wow, a lot of reporters and wire desk editors really don’t know archaeology, do they, and (iii) wow, I kinda wish it would turn out, despite all that is sane, to be true.
Okay, actually I can’t help really wishing it would turn out to true. Imagine the whole mainstream world of archaeology and anthropology is so spectacularly wrong about so very much, somehow, that there was a sophisticated, presumably non-nomadic culture in Bosnia circa 10,000 BCE (barely a millennium, really, after the glaciers started backing off in Europe) that no one previously guessed was there, and that it somehow developed the wherewithall to build something bigger than the biggest tombs in Egypt… Imagine, permanent settlements millennia before anyone guessed, a whole civilization, that old, that capable… what additional wonders might still turn up, beneath the soils of Europe?
So I’m reading all these papers, thinking: damn. Extraordinary claim. Thus, we’ve got extraordinary evidence, right? No one just gave these guys all these headlines on nothing, did they?
And that’s the trouble. It’s pretty close to that.
It may not be quite nothing. The research team does seem to have come up with two intriguing things. Specifically, in this paper (PDF), there’s a report of anomalous features in a few sets of remote sensing images. To summarize the paper, the two interesting things are: (i) several surprisingly pyramid-shaped forms (though it must be assumed these are somewhat buried, somewhat eroded, and this is only at the very Mars face-style-cognitive-error-friendly resolution of remote sensing images), and (ii) those same forms are described by the author as acting differently thermally than do their surroundings (they cool faster), implying they’re not made out of the same stuff. Those two things together suggest the big, oddly regularly shaped mounds might be ‘anthropogenic structures’, says the presumably qualified geophysicist who wrote the thing. So sure, maybe it’s worth bringing in someone who knows their way around a dig to look into it.
But then, there are the warning signs. The ‘archaeologist’ the press is quoting turns out, technically, to be an “industrial contractor with a penchant for crypto-archaeology”… who’s written some really rather hackish, New Agey ‘alternative history’ fluff on Mayan civilization (spotted by this commenter on the weblog Archaeoastronomy)… and beyond that remote sensing stuff (which hardly counts as conclusive), all the folk saying this is a pyramid have really got are (iii) that the hill sure looks pyramid-shaped from some angles, at least, and (iv) the excavation teams says they’ve found some tunnels nearby, and (v) they’ve found slabs they say are polished, flat, and man-made… though the pictures they’ve published so far have hardly clinched these latter claims, to my eye.
And just in case you think I’m being a bit harsh about that book, here’s a little piece from it: this is a little of what the ‘archaeologist’ the popular press are quoting has helpfully put online:
It is my theory 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…
—from Sam Osmanagich, The World of the Maya… erm… right. Okay. Funny how the AP didn’t also quote you on that, sir.
Getting back to the dig: turns out, more sadly still, there’s another story here. One the mainstream press seems to have missed, in their haste to shout Pyramid! 12,000 years old! In Europe!… and this is one I’d think, maybe, they really should cover:
I turns out it’s uncontroversial there’s a site of archaeological interest in the area. But the really quite well-supported mainstream view would be that it should be mediaeval, not 12,000 years old. And that it would be the ruins of Bosnia’s former royal capital: Visoki—the forerunner to the modern settlement now near the site.
And it turns out tunnels wouldn’t be such a wild discovery either, given this fact: One Professor Enver Imamovic, a former director of the National Museum of Sarajevo told reporters that skeletons found near the slabs (the ‘polished stones Osmanagich and company are now so excited about) suggest a mediaeval necropolis.
Hey, neat! A mediaeval necropolis, you say? Wouldn’t that be kind of cool to know about? And wouldn’t it be even cooler to have it properly excavated… as opposed to trampled on by some yahoo who’d like us all, apparently, to ‘vibrate in harmony with the Sun’?
Just asking. The article with the Imamovic quote is here, and is pretty much a must-read. Neat stuff in there about the political background, for example, and some of the ties the folk doing the digging have got:
… Mr Osmanagic’s categorical insistence on the existence of pyramids built by an ancient Balkan civilisation has aroused nationalistic passions that have led critics to fear being branded anti-patriotic. The authors of an online petition to “Stop Osmanagic now!” identify themselves only as a “group of independent intellectuals”. They claim that Mr Osmanagic’s foundation, which is registered as an non-governmental organisation, has close links with the Muslim Party for Democratic Action (SDA), and point out that Zlatko Hurtic, economic adviser to the Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic, is named as an advisor. They also claim that the project has the backing of SDA politician Hasan Cengic, one of the most powerful men in Bosnia, who has been linked to the arms trade.
—Amateur to dig on site of medieval capital in search of Bosnia’s own Valley of the Kings in the The Art NewspaperI’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: patriotism makes people stupid. Last word goes to an unnamed Bosnian archaeologist, quoted in the above article:
… another Bosnian archaeologist told The Art Newspaper that it would be like “letting a group of amateurs dig around Stonehenge”.One word: yikes.
Hey, AP? And everybody else?
Cover this right, dammit.
(Addendum: This guy, through whom I found the archaeoastronomy story and the bit on Osmanagic’s book, looks like he’s following this pretty closely, and has a new link to a nice debunking of the polished/flat stones claim.)
(Addendum the second: Actually, now that I look at it, the Stop Osmanagic now! folk look from here to be a bit on the nutty side, themselves. This page, apparently, is one of theirs, and apparently, this is also all about (a) the Bosnian constitution, (b) a plot to discredit the Catholic church, and (c) the fall of Srebrenica… And the moral of the story is, damn, I will never understand the Balkans.)