for National Geographic News
May 12, 2006
He's been called a Balkan Indiana Jones. Others label him a dreamer, or worse, a pyramid buff with loony ideas.
Despite his critics (and he has many) Semir "Sam" Osmanagic believes he's discovered the find of a lifetime—a series of ancient pyramids in the heart of Bosnia.
Visoko Pyramid Piggy-Banks - as appropriate as they are optimistic.
If the Bosnian-American businessman is correct, the structures would be the first known step pyramids in Europe.
"I am 100 percent sure. There is no other option," the Houston, Texas-based Osmanagic said.
At the heart of Osmanagic's belief is Visocica hill, an undeniably pyramid-shaped mound near the town of Visoko, 18 miles (30 kilometers) northwest of Sarajevo.
Visoko, the former medieval capital of Bosnia, cradles a rich history, including Roman and Illyrian ruins and countless Neolithic artifacts.
"Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun"
Last month Osmanagic and his team began sinking a series of wells into the 700-foot-tall (213-meter-tall) hill, which Osmanagic renamed the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun.
The kick-off was observed by a clutch of onlookers, journalists, and—in what may be a first for such endeavors—contestants from the Miss Bosnia beauty pageant.
So far a mixed crew of volunteers and hired help has unearthed a network of tunnels along with what Osmanagic describes as ancient mortar and sandstone blocks shaped by human hands.
He says the pyramid is at least 2,500 years old and may even date to the last ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago.
"Hopefully we can find some organic material, you know, the bones or the wooden fragments, or charcoal. … Then we can tell for sure," he said.
In recent months thousands of tourists have flooded into Visoko to peer at the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun and its neighbors, the nearby hills christened the Pyramids of the Moon and the Dragon.
Local entrepreneurs have been quick to cash in on the interest, knocking out pyramid-themed souvenirs, including clocks, slippers, and T-shirts.
One pizza parlor now serves triangular pies on triangular platters. And a local hotel recently changed its name to the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Motel.
Supporters say the dig is a spade of positive news in the once war-torn country, which endured a brutal four-year civil conflict in the 1990s.
In an email, Bosnian Meho said he was "amazed with a finding [of] pyramids, like many others Bosnians."
"This is [the] first positive thing, and so many of us now [are] getting together [for the] first time after the war, because we [have] got something positive to talk about."
Osmanagic echoes the sentiment: "Finally we have something so positive happening in this little, tiny, ruined country of Bosnia."
While he concedes that the notion of such colossal structures in the region defies accepted history, Osmanagic is adamant that the pyramids are real.
But a pantheon of archaeologists disagrees.
Prominent Bosnian archaeologists entered the scrum early on, denouncing the dig and lobbying to shut it down.
Anthony Harding, president of the Czech Republic-based European Association of Archaeologists, has dismissed Osmanagic's ideas as "wacky" and "absurd."
Garrett Fagan, of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, has slammed the project. He says that the dig will destroy bona fide archaeological sites in the area.
He recently told the London Times newspaper: "It's as if someone were given permission to bulldoze Stonehenge to find secret chambers of lost ancient wisdom underneath."
Experts shovel some of their scorn on the media, which have been trumpeting Osmanagic's astounding announcements in recent weeks.
Many news Web sites, including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, MSNBC, and ABC, ran a credulous Associated Press story dated April 19 that carried the headline, "Experts Find Evidence of Bosnia Pyramid."
In response, the executive editor of New York-based Archaeology magazine, Mark Rose, blasted Osmanagic as a quack and the press as gullible.
To emphasize his case, Rose quoted from online excerpts of a 2005 book by Osmanagic about the Maya.
Passages from the book suggest the Maya descended from the people of the mythical city of Atlantis, who themselves are aliens who came to Earth from the Pleiades star cluster.
Osmanagic counters that the material was misrepresented and was not his theory, but an interpretation of a Maya codex, or ancient book.
In general, the Bosnian-American dismisses Rose and other critics. Reported to have the Bosnian government's support, he plans to press on with this year's six-month excavation.
"I understand that the archaeologists would be the last ones to accept the fact that thousands of years back we did have advanced civilization in this region," he said.
Osmanagic remains confident his team will unearth sufficient proof to back that claim.
Given the level of professional skepticism, it will be a tough sell.
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," said Curtis Runnels, an archaeologist at Boston University in Massachusetts and a Balkan prehistory expert.
He says the known Upper Paleolithic peoples in the region were lucky if they could build tents and fires. Monumental architecture on a scale not even seen in Egypt would be a cosmic leap forward.
"It is not up to professional archaeologists to explain 200 years of research and evidence," Runnels said. "It is up to Mr. Osmanagic to prove his claims."