Early European explorers called the ruined city of Nan Madol the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and the "Venice of the Pacific" because the ancient city was built upon a coral reef and is intersected by artificial water canals. When it was first chronicled by Western biographers, they too were confounded about how the site could have reached its megalithic proportions. There is a location on nearby Pohnpei island where the megalithic columnar basalt "logs" were quarried to construct the 90 or so structures, but the big question has always been how did they transport the massive slabs to Nan Madol?
Nan Madol is located on the remote Micronesian cluster of islands surrounding the main island Pohnpei, far from any population centers. All food supplies and fresh water would have been transported in from elsewhere. Built atop a shallow coral reef perched on the very edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, the purposefully-constructed ruins of the ancient city of Nan Madol are spread across nearly a 100 artificial islets off the southeastern coast of Temwen Island. Set apart between the main island of Pohnpei by mudflats, these structures on Temwen Island have earned the awe of generations of archaeologists because the islands are made almost entirely of massive stacked rocks that are 5.5 to 7.5 meters high and about 5 meters thick.
Apart from Easter Island, I would conclude there is no other location the South Pacific that exceeds the wonders of this seldom visited site in architectural magnificence. Although it is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Pacific Basin region, surprisingly it is not featured on any world heritage register or national treasure preservation list.
Perhaps because it presents more questions than answers, mainstream archaeologists avoid recognizing the big questions surrounding Nan Madol. My enthusiasm about its myriad of mysteries must have been recognizable when the producers of the popular History Channel show Ancient Aliens came calling last year, asking me to speak about this mysterious site. My debut on Season Six was suggesting a novel concept about how this megalithic site could have been constructed. Apparently there was enough of a hook: producers went with the title "Aliens and Forbidden Islands."
Two Drastically Different Takes
Over time, but with scant evidence to base their conclusions, historians painted a picture that Nan Madol was the capital of the Saudeleur "Kings" dynasty which came to a climax about 400 years ago. Although habitation on Pohnpei can be established for over 2,000 years, historians surmise the construction of the artificial islets and stone enclosures probably started around the 8th century CE, and concluding abruptly in 1628, yet the locals maintain the structures were in place before they arrived. What's also interesting is there are no examples of this type of megalithic stone construction anywhere else but here.
The native people on Pohnpei maintain a completely different viewpoint. They will tell you the city is haunted, prefer to stay far away from the site, and hold no claim to their ancestors having a hand in its construction. They want nothing to do with the location, save the few intrepid local escorts who will take tourists willing to pay handsomely to have a guide, but only in the daylight. The locals will never go near the site at night. They believe if they spent a night in the "City of Ghosts" as they call it, they would die. The native people feel there are otherworldly powers guarding the archaeological ruins. Some even claim mysterious glowing orbs can be seen flying around the site during the night. Okay, so this can easily be dismissed as superstition, but it is rare to have two such drastically conflicting stories about the origin of a famous location such as this. Usually the local people are quite happy to have a nearby attraction to lure in wealthy tourists.
The Curious will be Punished with Death
There are no written records on the island's history and the legend has been kept alive by word of mouth only. The local practice of keeping secrets is considered sacred and is one of the obstacles to learning more about their past. The local king Nahmwarki made a proclamation saying to all, "to disrupt the holy ground that once belonged to past rulers with supernatural powers would be breaking the law." Time and again, he made it clear that to disturb the hallowed ground that once belonged to the old rulers with supernatural powers meant a legal breach. Time and again tragedy struck those who defied the ban.
Nahmwarki threatened any Western archaeologists with capital punishment should they break the law and dig. Nevertheless, jewelry and other artifacts that were buried with the chiefs were plundered. In 1874, the boat of a Polish anthropologist named Jan Kubary carrying artifacts from Nan Madol was shipwrecked near the Marshall Islands after it departed. Hundreds of crates sank to the bottom of the ocean, and with them went much of Nan Madol's history.
Early in the 20th century the island was under German rule. The governor at the time, Victor Berg, disregarded the royal ban and entered the Venice of the Pacific. Despite having been warned, he opened a sealed tomb coffin of the ancient island rulers. In it he found the skeletal remains of giants measuring two to three meters tall. Upon his arrival back the next morning he said Nan Madol was alive with spiritual activity during that night. There was a wild storm with lightning flashes in the sky and torrential rains pounding down on the island. Governor Victor Berg lay in delirium, and reported hearing the sounds of a conch shell blowing and seeing floating balls of light. A few hours later on that very same morning, on April 30, 1907, Governor Berg mysteriously died. The German physician serving on the island could not determine the cause of death.
The natives were quick to claim it was a curse, and said it proves that supernatural powers guard the City of the Dead. Today's rationale would say he must have died of sunstroke, storm exposure or heat exhaustion contracted while surveying the ruins.
The mysterious curse continued in the next decades when the Japanese controlled the island prior to the outbreak of World War II. They reportedly hauled away platinum caskets from a mirror location called the "House of the Dead" under the sea. The divers discovered huge coffins underwater, broke them apart, and hauled up pieces of platinum. Suddenly the main exports of Pohnpei to Japan—vanilla, copra, sago, and mother of pearl—were supplanted by the valuable white metal platinum. One day two members of the blasphemous mission to the House of the Dead vanished. Archaeologists digging on Nan Madol these days are met with slim pickings of artifacts to study, and even then, face the possibility of a curse said to be cast upon anyone who violate the property of the ancients.
A Megalithic Enigma
One big mystery I've often pondered is why the builders would go to all the trouble in creating islands, rather than just building on dry land? Constructed of long basalt slabs weighing 18,140 to 45,350 kilograms, Nan Madol is a series of precisely stacked-rock structures along the tidal flats of a shallow coral reef. The immense megalithic stone city, 28 square kilometers in size, resides above and below the ocean's surface. Nearby on the southeast corner of Pohnpei is Madolinihmw Harbor where the Japanese divers recovered the platinum coffins. The harbor is known to contain underwater columns in a straight row and assorted sunken ruins, including a so-called "castle," 60 meters down in murky water.
How the site was built creates the biggest enigma. Most of the above water ruins lie upon the 90 or so artificial islets in "Nan Madol central," an area of approximately 2.5 square kilometers bisected by canals and underwater tunnels. The ruins on the artificial islands are mostly square or rectangular in shape, each created out of stacked basalt slabs in the style of "Lincoln Logs," with the largest reported at weighing up to an amazing 45,350 kilograms. Such incredible weight would have crushed any wooden log rolling system as suggested by conventional historians. The idea of moving such heavy rocks using ropes, rollers and rafts is just as preposterous as the alternative ideas of how it was constructed. After all, every attempt to recreate the primitive moving technique has utterly failed.
Another theory as to how the rocks were transported, and the theory I proposed on Ancient Aliens, is that the slabs were moved to the location and stacked by the use of auditive or acoustic levitation. Part of my comment on the show was by "matching the sound frequency of matter" huge boulders can be rendered weightless. In my book Future Esoteric: The Unseen Realms I have illustrations and testimony of Westerners witnessing the Tibetans use this technique in the 1930s. However these days no such technology exists. Something appears to be lost in translation.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the site contains hundreds of rocks weighing 5 to 50 tons and somehow were moved to this remote location, which features no freshwater springs or evidence of farming. Some of the giant rock slabs are set together in walls up to 10 meters in height, and over 5 meters thick. So not only was the incredible weight of the rocks a challenge getting them to the site, but also putting them so precisely in place and so high up. Interestingly, none of the native people on Pohnpei have ever built in stone—today they all live in grass huts or prefabricated buildings, suggesting a regression of culture has taken place.
The Mystery Deepens
The largest building of Nan Madol is called Nan Dawas, a massive open-air complex with an inner sanctum. Its 7.5 meter high walls surround a central square enclosure. Underground tunnels are said to connect Nan Dowas to several of the larger buildings outside the complex. It is believed that some of these tunnels go beneath the reef and exit underwater to caves near Madolinihmw Harbor, which can be seen while scuba diving, but are too clogged for a person to swim through. The walls of Nan Dowas are an impressive 311 meters in diameter, and can be seen in satellite images.
Nan Dowas and its inner section are constructed of huge stones expertly stacked on an artificial island. Some of the rocks are basalt logs five meters long in a hexagonal shape, formed naturally through volcanic crystallization and quarried on Pohnpei island. Other stones are huge slabs, roughly cut and dressed. What makes all the rocks so interesting, beyond their massive size, is the content of the stone. Contained within the rock basalt are large crystals, which are highly magnetized. Compasses spin out of control when held near the walls. Just Nan Dowas alone was a massive construction effort, let alone the 90 other smaller structures which are also part of the larger complex.
The reports of Governor Berg and the native people saying they have seen glowing orbs in the middle of the night also deepens the mystery of Nan Madol. The locals will tell you the spheres are thought to be restless spirits of long deceased island kings. These kings were believed to practice powerful magic and their spirits are thought to protect the watery ruins against outsiders, hence the accidents which have befallen those who dare tamper with the structures or artifacts.
Among the many mysteries here are the strange mineral findings and the reports of giant bones. As mentioned, during the Japanese occupation preceding World War II, Japanese divers discovered platinum coffins near the underwater site called the "City of the Gods." Among the recorded Japanese exports of Pohnpei included platinum, yet the rock on Pohnpei Island and surrounding islands contains no trace of platinum. The Japanese divers reported very large human-like bones. Even today, every so often a person will come across a massive leg bone in the jungle surrounding the site.
What could this mean? Giant people of a highly advanced civilization found near magnetized basalt chambers surrounded by waterways? Could this be evidence of a very old, sunken continent in the Pacific? The questions attempting to resolve the origins of Nan Madol may never be known. But what is known is someone or something went to a great effort to move many hundred metric tons of stone across the island to create a grand city in a very remote location, both above and below the surface of the water. And still today the locals will tell you there is a reason why this part of the island has been left uninhabited.
Getting to Nan Madol
Should you wish to go, Nan Madol is located on the southeast side of Pohnpei island, where it practically connects to Temwen. Pohnpei lies about 16,000 km (9,920 miles) northeast of New Guinea, or 4,025 km (2,500 miles) southwest of Hawaii. Pohnpei is the capital of the independent Federated States of Micronesia, and flights arrive daily from the U.S. territory of Guam and other Pacific Rim countries. Pohnpei is part of the Caroline Island chain, and the other nearest island with a sizable population is Guam. The Federated States of Micronesia incorporates the Caroline Islands, and additional minor island groups.
Brad Olsen is the author of nine books and operates CCC Publishing, which has released 14 travel titles. He is a regular contributor to several magazines and media outlets. See more at www.bradolsen.com and www.cccpublishing.com. Brad Olsen's 9th book Modern Esoteric: Beyond Our Senses has additional information on Nan Madol and will be released this month. The companion to this book is Future Esoteric: The Unseen Realms, released by CCC Publishing January, 2013.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and Google Earth
The Mysterious Stone Chambers of New England by Brad Olsen
Discovering Forbidden Archaeology by Brad Olsen
Sedona: Is the Whole Town Built on a Hoax? by Laurie Gough
Modern Day Druids at the Hill of Tara in Ireland by Ian Middleton
See other South Pacific travel stories from the archives
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