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Sam Osmanagich claims that 12,000 years ago, early Europeans built "the greatest pyramidal complex" on earth, in Bosnia. (Morten Hvaal)

The Mystery of Bosnia's Ancient Pyramids

An amateur archaeologist says he's discovered the world's oldest pyramids in the Balkans. But many experts remain dubious

Archaeological claims have long been used to serve political purposes. In 1912, British archaeologists combined a modern skull with an orangutan jaw to fabricate a "missing link" in support of the claim that human beings arose in Britain, not Africa. (The paleontologist Richard Leakey later noted that English elites took so much pride in "being the first, that they swallowed [the hoax] hook, line and sinker." )

More recently, in 2000, Shinichi Fujimura—a prominent archaeologist whose finds suggested that Japanese civilization was 700,000 years old—was revealed to have buried the forged artifacts he had supposedly discovered. "Fujimura's straightforward con was undoubtedly accepted by the establishment, as well as the popular press, because it gave them evidence of what they already wanted to believe—the great antiquity of the Japanese people," Michele Miller wrote in the archaeological journal Athena Review.

Some Bosnian scholars have publicly opposed Osmanagich's project. In April 2006, twenty-one historians, geologists and archaeologists signed a letter published in several Bosnian newspapers describing the excavations as amateurish and lacking proper scientific supervision. Some went on local television to debate Osmanagich. Bosniak nationalists retaliated, denouncing pyramid opponents as "corrupt" and harassing them with e-mails. Zilka Kujundzic-Vejzagic of the National Museum, one of the Balkans' pre-eminent archaeologists, says she received threatening phone calls. "One time I was getting onto the tram and a man pushed me off and said, ‘You're an enemy of Bosnia, you don't ride on this tram,'" she recalls. "I felt a bit endangered."

"I have colleagues who have gone into silence because the attacks are constant and very terrible," says University of Sarajevo historian Salmedin Mesihovic. "Every day you feel the pressure."

"Anyone who puts their head above the parapet suffers the same fate," says Anthony Harding, a pyramid skeptic who was, until recently, president of the European Association of Archaeologists. Sitting in his office at the University of Exeter in England, he reads from a thick folder of letters denouncing him as a fool and a friend of the Serbs. He labeled the file "Bosnia—Abuse."

In June 2006, Sulejman Tihic, then chairman of Bosnia's three-member presidency, endorsed the foundation's work. "One does not need to be a big expert to see that those are the remains of three pyramids," he told journalists at a summit of Balkan presidents. Tihic invited Koichiro Matsuura, then director-general of Unesco, to send experts to determine if the pyramids qualified as a World Heritage site. Foreign scholars, including Harding, rallied to block the move: 25 of them, representing six countries, signed an open letter to Matsuura warning that "Osmanagich is conducting a pseudo-archaeological project that, disgracefully, threatens to destroy parts of Bosnia's real heritage."

But the Pyramid Foundation's political clout appears considerable. When the minister of culture of the Bosniak-Croat Federation, Gavrilo Grahovac, blocked the renewal of foundation permits in 2007—on the grounds that the credibility of those working on the project was "unreliable"—the action was overruled by Nedzad Brankovic, then the federation prime minister. "Why should we disown something that the entire world is interested in?" Brankovic told reporters at a press conference following a visit to the site. "The government will not act negatively toward this project." Haris Silajdzic, another member of the national presidency, has also expressed support for Osmanagich's project, on grounds that it helps the economy.

Critics contend that the project not only sullies Bosnian science but also soaks up scarce resources. Osmanagich says his foundation has received over $1 million, including $220,000 from Malaysian tycoon Vincent Tan; $240,000 from the town of Visoko; $40,000 from the federal government; and $350,000 out of Osmanagich's pocket. Meanwhile, the National Museum in Sarajevo has struggled to find sufficient funds to repair wartime damage and safeguard its collection, which includes more than two million archaeological artifacts and hundreds of thousands of books.

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