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Searching for the Builders of Nan Madol

One of the world’s supreme ancient mysteries is also among its most obscure. In a remote corner of the western Pacific Ocean, nearly a thousand miles north of New Guinea and two thousand, three hundred miles south of Japan, stand the massive ruins of a long-dead city. Incongruously built on a coral reef only five feet above sea-level between the equator and the eleventh north parallel, Nan Madol is a series of rectangular islands and colossal towers choked by draping vegetation. During its prehistoric lifetime, sole access to Nan Madol was via the ocean, from which vessels entered an open-air corridor flanked on either side by artificial islets. At the end of this sea-lane still remains the main and only entrance, a dramatically impressive flight of broad stone steps rising to a plaza. Somewhat less than one hundred man-made islands are enclosed within the “downtown” area’s 1.6 square miles. All are interconnected by an extensive network of what appear to be canals, each twenty-seven feet across and more than four feet deep at high tide.

An estimated two hundred fifty million tons of prismatic basalt spread over one hundred seventy acres went into the construction of Nan Madol. Its stone girders rise in a Lincoln-log-like cribwork configuration to thirty feet. Originally, their walls rose higher still, perhaps by another ten or twenty feet. Precise estimates are impossible to ascertain, because the Pacific metropolis is being slowly, inexorably dismantled by relentless jungle growth dislodging the unmortared ramparts and scattering their roughly quarried blocks to the ground. David Hatcher Childress, who conducted several underwater investigations at Nan Madol in the 1980s and early 1990s, concludes that “the whole project is of such huge scale that it easily compares with the building of the Great Wall of China and the Great Pyramid of Egypt in sheer amounts of stone and labor used, and the gigantic scope of the site.” In fact, some of the hewn or splintered prisms built into Nan Madol are larger and heavier than the more than two million blocks of Khufu’s Pyramid. Between four and five million stone columns went into the construction of the Caroline Island’s prehistoric metropolis.

Out-crops of basalt were quarried by splitting off massive splinters into the quadrangular, pentagonal, or hexagonal “logs” that went into building Nan Madol. They were roughly hewn into shape, then loosely fitted without benefit of mortar or cement, in contrast to the finely lined and joined stonework found in the supposed canals. These prismatic columns usually range in length from three to twelve feet, although many reach twenty-five feet. Their average weight is around five tons each, but the larger examples weigh twenty or twenty-five tons apiece. An estimated four to five million basalt pillars, girders and logs went into the construction of Nan Madol. According to Science Magazine, “At places in the reef there were natural breaks that served as entrances to the harbors. In these ship-canals there were a number of islands, many of which were surrounded by a wall of stone five or six feet high.”

In fact, a sixteen-foot-high wall originally two thousand, eight hundred eleven feet long, formerly encircled the entire site. Only a few sections of this massive rampart have not been broken down by unguessed centuries of battering storms, against which still stand two breakwaters. One is one thousand, five hundred feet in extent, but the other, nearly three times greater, is almost a mile long! Some of Nan Madol’s walls are more than twelve feet thick, to what purpose no one has been able to determine, because they are not part of any military fortifications. There is no evidence of keystones or arches, just a simple slab lintel placed over doorways. None of the presumed “houses” have windows nor are there any streets, only what may be canals.

The city’s best-preserved structure is known as Nan Dowas, a tall, square, hollow, windowless tower composed of fifteen-foot long, hexagonal black basalt pillars laid horizontally between courses of rudely cut boulders and smaller stones. Childress points out that “the entire massive structure was built by stacking stones in the manner in which one might construct a log cabin.” The southeastern side of Nan Dowas features the city’s largest block, a single cornerstone weighing no less than sixty tons. Digging underneath this impressive megalith, archaeologists were surprised to discover it had been intentionally set on a buried stone platform.

They were in for yet another surprise when they found a large tunnel cut through coral running from the center of Nan Dowas. An entire network of underground corridors connecting all the major, man-made islands was subsequently revealed, including an islet known as Darong, joined to the outer reef that surrounds the city by a long tunnel. Incredibly, some tunnels appear to run beneath the reef itself, exiting into caves under the sea. Darong is also notable for its stone-lined, artificial lake, one of several found throughout the complex. What appears to be its longest tunnel extends from the city center out into the sea for perhaps half a mile. Estimates of the twenty thousand to fifty thousand workers needed to build Nan Madol are in sharp contrast with the native population of little Pohnpei, which, in addition to families and assistance personnel (farmers, fishermen, etc,), could never support such numbers.

But not a single carving, relief, or decoration of any kind has been found at Nan Madol, nor any idols or ritual objects in fact, few artifacts of any kind to identify its builders. No statues or sculpture ever adorned its watery boulevards. Not even one of the small, portable stone images commonly found throughout the rest of Micronesia and across central and western Polynesia was discovered at the site. Nor has a single tool or weapon so far been recovered. Although a ruin, the city is not difficult to envision during its hey-day. Remove all concealing vegetation, and visitors would behold crudely worked masses of basalt contrasting with orderly courses of stone rising in massive towers and overpowering walls amid a complex of smaller, rectangular buildings and man-made lakes interconnected by dozens of canals, and spread out over eleven square miles. No wonder Nan Madol has been referred to as “the Venice of the Pacific.” But it had no market-place, temples, or storage areas, not even a cemetery to bury its dead.

Nan Madol refers to the “Spaces Between” created by the network of canals, while Pohnpei (Ponape, until its incorporation in the Federated States of Micronesia, in 1991), means “On An Altar.” Its ruins are not confined to the coral reef facing in Madolenihmw Harbor, but may be found across Pohnpei itself and on several offshore islands. A rectangular enclosure forty-six feet long by thirty-three feet wide, with bisecting, three-foot-high interior wall, was discovered in a remote, swampy meadow high in the mountains, near Salapwuk. Although the twin courtyards contain a one-thousand, five hundred twenty square-foot area, a pair of inner platforms are only one foot high. As at Nan Madol, roughly cut basalt boulders and basalt “logs” were stacked to form the enclosure. Several others stand on Pohnpei’s southwest coast, with the largest example atop a seven hundred twenty-foot mountain. The summit is entirely surrounded by walls five and seven feet high connected by paved walkways to several terraced platforms.

About a quarter of a mile away, to the southwest, several so-called “crypts” were found at Pohnpei, but no trace of human remains have ever been recovered from the 12.5- to 14.8-foot long containers, whose real function has not been identified. Nearer the coast, Diadi features a finely made basalt enclosure with platform, one thousand sixty feet square. Alauso’s two-tiered, three-hundred forty foot square pyramid with a central fire-pit stands not far from the sea, near Kiti Rock’s twenty-four-foot-square platform, with four upright basalt columns at each of the inner corners. Numerous stone pathways connecting platforms cross Sokehs Island, separated from Pohnpei by a mangrove swamp.

Significantly contributing to the mystery of these structures, it would be difficult to imagine a more out-of-the-way place than Pohnpei, a mere speck amid the four and a half million square miles of Western Pacific Ocean surrounding Micronesia. Sea-lanes and trading routes are thousands of miles away, contributing significantly to its extreme isolation. As the encyclopedist of ancient anomalies, William R. Corliss, observes, “Only one hundred twenty-nine square miles in area, it is almost lost in the immensity of the Pacific.”

Totolom, Tolocome, or Nehnalud, the “Big Mountain,” rises to two thousand, five hundred ninety-five feet from the middle of the squarish, twelve by fourteen-and-a-half mile-island, overgrown with mangrove swamps, but devoid of beaches. Pohnpei is just thirteen miles across, and entirely surrounded by a coral reef, together with twenty-three smaller islands. Abundant rainfall—one hundred eighty-five to two hundred inches annually—conjures a profusion of ferns, orchids, creepers, bougainvillea and hibiscus throughout thickly wooded valleys and across steep mountainsides. Humidity is excessive, and mildew, rot and decay permeate the island. Additionally, its remote location hardly seems to qualify Pohnpei as an ideal spot to build civilization. Indeed, the island has nothing to lend itself for such a gargantuan undertaking as Nan Madol.

Yet, its very existence implies city planning, a system of weights and measures, divisions of labor, and a hierarchy of authority, plus advanced surveying and construction techniques on the part of its builders. All this was needed to raise the only pre-modern urban center in the entire Pacific. But what kind of a place was it, this city without streets, windows or art? Bill S. Ballinger, whose Lost City of Stone was an early popular book on the subject, observed, “Nothing quite like Nan Madol exists anywhere else on earth. The ancient city’s construction, architecture and location are unique.”

At Pohnpei’s northern end, Kolonia, is its capital and the only town on the island, and stands in stark contrast to the magnificent achievement just across the bay. Unlike the orderly precision evident at Nan Madol, Kolonia grew haphazardly, with no regard to planning of any kind, and is today inhabited by perhaps two thousand residents who live in mostly one-story, cinder-block buildings with corrugated tin roofs. In contrast to the prehistoric stone pathways that still criss-cross the island, some fifteen miles of dirt roads are often impassable, especially during frequent downpours. Most islanders dwell in small shacks of dried grass, cane and bamboo, not monumental stone. Employment opportunities are virtually non-existent, so the natives lead subsistence lives from the richly fertile, volcanic soil, their diet supplemented by pigs and chickens.

The Carolinas have never supported a population growth commensurate with the labor needed to build the “Venice of the Pacific.” As Ballinger put it, “The point is that large reserves of manpower were never readily available in and around Ponape. This is a factor that must always be considered when trying to solve the mystery of the construction of Nan Madol.” Pohnpei’s one hundred eighty-three square miles are mostly mountainous and uninhabitable, barely able to support its twenty thousand inhabitants. Only a far greater number would have justified, let alone been able to build a public works project on the huge scale of Nan Madol.

A leading New Zealand scholar of the early 20th century, John Macmillan Brown, noted that “The rafting over the reef at high tide and the hauling up of these immense blocks, most of them from five to twenty five tons weight, to such a height as sixty feet must have meant tens of thousands of organized labor and it had to be housed and clothed and fed. Yet, within a radius of fifteen hundred miles of its centre there are not more than fifty thousand people today.” Just about that many workers would have been needed to assemble Nan Madol’s four or five million basalt logs in approximately twenty years.

The mystery of its construction parallels the lost identity of its builders. Who they were, and why they chose this remote corner of the world to express their civilized greatness are questions mainstream scholars and unconventional investigators alike are unable to answer.


CAPTION: The ruins of Nan Madol built with basalt “logs” (photo by James McVey, NOAA)

Ancient Mysteries

May/June 2005 – #51