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

Sam Osmanagich claims that 12,000 years ago, early Europeans built "the greatest pyramidal complex" on earth, in Bosnia. (Morten Hvaal)
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Critics also cite the potential damage to Bosnia's archae- ological heritage. "In Bosnia, you can't dig in your back garden without finding artifacts," says Adnan Kaljanac, a graduate student of ancient history at the University of Sarajevo. Although Osmanagich's excavation has kept its distance from the medieval ruins on Visocica Hill, Kaljanac worries that the project may destroy undocumented Neolithic, Roman or medieval sites in the valley. Similarly, in a 2006 letter to Science magazine, Schoch said the hills in Visoko "could well yield scientifically valuable terrestrial vertebrate specimens. Presently, the fossils are being ignored and destroyed during the ‘excavations,' as crews work to shape the natural hills into crude semblances of the Mayan-style step pyramids with which Osmanagich is so enamored."

That same year, the Commission to Preserve National Monuments, an independent body created in 1995 by the Dayton peace treaty to safeguard historical artifacts from nationalist infighting, asked to inspect artifacts reportedly found at Osmanagich's site. According to commission head Lovrenovic, commission members were refused access. The commission then expanded the protected zone around Visoki, effectively pushing Osmanagich off the mountain. Bosnia's president, ministers and parliament currently have no authority to override the commission's decisions.

But if Osmanagich has begun to encounter obstacles in his homeland, he's had continuing success abroad. This past June, he was made a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, one of whose academicians served as "scientific chairman" of the First International Scientific Conference of the Valley of the Pyramids, which Osmanagich convened in Sarajevo in August 2008. Conference organizers included the Russian Academy of Technical Sciences, Ain Shams University in Cairo and the Archaeological Society of Alexandria. This past July, officials in the village of Boljevac, Serbia, claimed that a team sent by Osmanagich had confirmed a pyramid under Rtanj, a local mountain. Osmanagich e-mailed me he had not visited Rtanj himself nor had he initiated any research at the site. However, he told the Serbian newspaper Danas that he endorsed future study. "This is not the only location in Serbia, nor the region, where there is a possibility of pyramidal structures," he was quoted as saying.

For now Osmanagich has gone underground, literally, to excavate a series of what he says are ancient tunnels in Visoko—which he believes are part of a network that connects the three pyramids. He leads me through one of them, a cramped, three-foot-high passage through disconcertedly unconsolidated sand and pebbles he says he is widening into a seven-foot-tall thoroughfare—the tunnel's original height, he maintains—for tourists. (The tunnel was partially filled, he says, when sea levels rose by 1,500 feet at the end of the ice age.) He points out various boulders he says were transported to the site 15,000 years ago, some of which bear carvings he says date back to that time. In an interview with the Bosnian weekly magazine BH Dani, Nadija Nukic, a geologist whom Osmanagich once employed, claimed there was no writing on the boulders when she first saw them. Later, she saw what appeared to her as freshly cut marks. She added that one of the foundation's workers told her he had carved the first letters of his and his children's names. (After the interview was published, Osmanagich posted a denial from the worker on his Web site. Efforts to reach Nukic have been unavailing.)

Some 200 yards in, we reach the end of the excavated portion of the tunnel. Ahead lies a tenuous-looking crawl space through the gravelly, unconsolidated earth. Osmanagich says he plans to dig all the way to Visocica Hill, 1.4 miles away, adding that, with additional donations, he could reach it in as few as three years. "Ten years from now nobody will remember my critics," he says as we start back toward the light, "and a million people will come to see what we have."

Colin Woodard is a freelance writer living in Maine. His most recent book is The Republic of Pirates (Harcourt, 2007).


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