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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

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General Pike & the Klan

When Dan Brown releases his book The Solomon Key later this year, one thing is certain: it will be a bestseller. With The Da Vinci Code selling close to 20 million copies, anticipation is growing regarding the next Robert Langdon thriller. What is less certain is what this next novel will be about. However, by studying hints and clues left by Dan Brown on the cover of The Da Vinci Code, on his website and in media interviews, the attentive reader can discern with confidence some of the obvious subjects, and also make predictions regarding the more obscure topics which might be included in The Solomon Key.

I discuss these areas in depth in my new book Da Vinci in America: Unlocking the Secrets of Dan Brown’s “The Solomon Key.” Some of the obvious topics which will play a part in The Solomon Key are Freemasonry, its connection with the Founding Fathers of the United States, and the esoteric architecture and landscape of the capital, Washington, D.C. However, in the restricted space we have here, I would like to explore just one obscure area which Dan Brown might be tempted to include in his book. This regards one of the more esoteric constructions in the capital, as well as the life of the mysterious man who is explicitly tied to its foundations—and his links with the Ku Klux Klan.

Within a building known as the “House of the Temple” in Washington, D.C. lays the body of Confederate general Albert Pike. This building is the grandiose headquarters of a particular brand of Freemasonry known as the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction. Egyptian iconography adorns the entrance, and the pyramidal construction which surmounts the House of the Temple bears a striking resemblance to the truncated pyramid seen on the enigmatic Great Seal of the United States—right down to the number of courses of stonework.

The privileged resting place is a testament to Pike’s contribution to the Scottish Rite—he composed the ritual, and quite amazingly presided as the Sovereign Grand Commander of the group from 1859 right up until his death in 1891. A lawyer and newspaper editor, Pike also authored a number of books on Freemasonry. The best known of these is Morals and Dogma, a massive tome which was meant as a supplement to the rituals he designed for the Scottish Rite. The content is a rambling commentary on ancient cultures and comparative religion, and the book was given to each initiate after they gained entrance to the 14th degree (of 33). It’s interesting to note that one section of Pike’s treatise is concerned with the similarities between the myths of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and the subsequent Marian tradition of Christianity. Perhaps Dan Brown might find a tie-in here to the ‘sacred feminine’ topic which The Da Vinci Code has become famous for?

Morals and Dogma has gained quite a reputation among conspiracy theorists and anti-Masons, due largely to the writings of a Frenchman calling himself Léo Taxil. After originally writing a number of anti-Catholic tracts, Taxil subsequently turned his attention to Freemasonry, and focused particularly on Albert Pike. He fraudulently attributed to Pike the worship of Lucifer, and designated him as the ‘Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry’. However, in 1897 he revealed that his writings were hoaxes. Perhaps tellingly, Taxil was schooled by the defenders of Catholicism, the Society of Jesus—better known as the Jesuits.

Nevertheless, there are many sections of Morals and Dogma which show that Pike was very interested in the occult, and his writings on the ‘Luciferian philosophy’ have no doubt been fuel for anti-Masons. It is important to note though that Pike’s reverence for the Lucifer principle was not referring to the Christian idea of Lucifer—that is, the devil—but instead to the classical definition of a search for light, or knowledge. The ancient Romans named the morning star, Venus, as Lucifer: literally, ‘the shining one.’

Pike also appeared to believe in a ‘hierarchy of knowing’, and wrote with disdain on much of Blue Masonry (the first three degrees). For instance:

The Blue Degrees are but the outer court or portico of the Temple. Part of the symbols are displayed there to the Initiate, but he is intentionally misled by false interpretations…their true explication is reserved for the Adepts, the Princes of Masonry…Masonry is the veritable Sphinx, buried to the head in the sands heaped round it by the ages.

Pike’s writings show that he was deeply interested in the Kabbalah and other strands of occult thinking. The official historian of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction sees the 32 degrees of the order’s ritual (the 33rd degree is an honorary title) as being based in the ‘32 paths of wisdom’ in the Kabbalah. Pike also sided with the anti-Catholic thinking of many of the medieval occultists and scientists:

Masonry is a search after Light. That search leads us directly back, as you see, to the Kabbalah. In that ancient and little understood medley of absurdity and philosophy, the Initiate will find the source of doctrines and may in time come to understand the Hermetic philosophers, the Alchemist, all the Anti-Papal thinkers of the Middle Ages…

Beyond these controversial philosophies, however, Albert Pike is also embroiled in another, far stranger debate. In 1993, a group petitioned the Council of the District of Columbia to remove a statue of Albert Pike that sits in Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C. Their request was made on the basis that Albert Pike was one of the founders of the infamous Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan organization that we recognize today, replete with burning crosses, white hoods and lynch mobs, is actually the third incarnation of a group originally founded in Tennessee in 1865, after the end of the American Civil War. Confederate veterans originally created the group to achieve a number of goals: to aid Confederate widows and orphans of the war, to oppose the extension of voting rights to Blacks, and also to fight other ‘impositions’ put on the southern states during the Reconstruction.

However, the group became known for its use of violence to achieve some of its goals, and in 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Klan Act, which authorized the use of force to end the terrorist actions of the Klan. This legislation heralded the end of the original Klan, although it was to rise again from the discontent brewing at the start of the 20th century.

The second incarnation of the KKK arrived during World War I, and was a far more successful affair. Many whites living in poverty were drawn to the group, through the propaganda that their living conditions were caused by Blacks, Jews, Catholics and foreigners. The group claimed influence in the highest circles of government, allegedly inducting President Warren Harding, and also almost wooing President (and 33rd degree Mason) Harry Truman. At its peak, the organization boasted some four million members.

The most recent group going under the name of the Ku Klux Klan was not founded until after World War II, and is in essence an organization formed in response to the growing civil rights movement. Though it shares commonalities with the original KKK, such as the desire for segregation of races, it is in reality a very separate group. Any attempt to discredit Pike on the basis of his alleged role in the original KKK therefore is not really worthy of consideration, as we must consider that Pike’s thinking was shared by most people in the southern states at that time (although that certainly does not validate their philosophy!). It’s also worth noting that Pike was an early supporter of the rights of Native Americans.

But was Pike even involved with the original Ku Klux Klan? The only evidence linking him with the group are the writings of a number of pro-Confederate historians from the turn of the century. There is no direct evidence that he founded the group, and it must be remembered that these historians tended to glorify the Confederate role, including the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, there is some strange history linking Albert Pike with the first incarnation of the KKK.

When the xenophobic ‘Know-Nothings’ political party dissolved in the mid-19th century, one of its members formed a new organization. The ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ (K.G.C.) was created by a ‘Know-Nothing’ from Virginia named George Bickley in 1856, although others have claimed that Albert Pike himself formed the group. Its aim was American (or more correctly, Southern) expansionism: a circle on the globe some 16 degrees in radius, and centered on Havana in Cuba, was earmarked as territory to be conquered. This circle included Mexico, Central America and even some of South America. It is alleged that the infamous outlaw Jesse James was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

A curious aspect of Bickley’s plans was his use of the number 32. He set up 32 local chapters of his new group, and the ‘golden circle’ itself was 32 degrees in diameter (a radius of 16 degrees). Also, an early exposé on this mysterious order listed a specific invasion plan for the taking of Mexico:

We agree to introduce a force of 16,000 men, armed, equipped, and provided, and to take the field under the command of Manual Doblado, Governor of Guanajuato, who agrees to furnish an equal number of men to be officered by Knights of the Golden Circle.

So here again, we have the use of the distinctive number 32—two groups of 16,000 men. As we have already noted, the 32 normal degrees of Scottish Rite Masonry are said to have their basis in the 32 paths of wisdom in the Kabbalah. Thus, we appear to have a more explicit link between Bickley’s Knights of the Golden Circle and Albert Pike’s Scottish Rite Freemasonry. Newspaper reports of the time also state baldly that Bickley was a ‘front’ for the true leaders of the K.G.C.

In their book Shadow of the Sentinel, Bob Brewer and Warren Getler describe how the Knights of the Golden Circle amassed a fortune through various means, and how they hid this treasure in secret caches when the group had to go underground. The knowledge of the whereabouts of the treasure was hidden in a series of complex ciphers, waiting to be reclaimed by initiates when the time was right. Certainly prime fodder for a Dan Brown plot, considering his regular use of puzzles and codes within his narratives. However, whether Brown is familiar with this obscure piece of history is not known.

It is alleged that the Knights of the Golden Circle eventually morphed into the original Ku Klux Klan. There is circumstantial evidence to support this. They shared many of the same goals and ideals, with both organizations explicitly referring to the need to support widows and orphans (which should be noted as a peculiarly Masonic ideal). Beyond that, ‘Ku Klux’ is actually derived from the Greek work kyklos, meaning ‘circle’—that is, the KKK was the ‘Circle Clan.’ Note too that the Know-Nothings, the Knights of the Golden Circle, Scottish Rite Masonry and the Ku Klux Klan all shared a dislike of Catholicism. Many Masons were members of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact which led the leaders of Freemasonry to distance themselves from any affiliation.

The distrust of the Catholic Church by Scottish Rite Masons has continued into recent history. In 1960, the Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, wrote an article concerning the possible election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as President. The article appeared in the February 1960 issue of New Age, a Masonic publication:

Whatever bigotry is in evidence in the United States is exhibited solely by the Roman Catholic hierarchy… the dual allegiance of American Catholics is a present danger to our free institutions… among American citizens there should be no question or suspicion of allegiance to any foreign power, but in the case of the Roman Catholic citizen, his church is the guardian of his conscience and asserts that he must obey its laws and decrees even if they are in conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

A further link with the Ku Klux Klan, which is worthy of discussion is that former President Woodrow Wilson had a hand in the success of the second incarnation of the group. His administration was the first to re-institute segregation in the federal government since Abraham Lincoln began desegregation in 1863. Wilson’s praise of the movie Birth of a Nation, which romanticized the original Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate cause, was influential in the re-formation of the organization.

There is no real link here to the Knights of the Golden Circle, but there is the possibility of a tie-in with The Solomon Key. In Da Vinci in America, I reveal that an enigmatic sculpture residing at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia—and likely to be a part of Brown’s next book—has the following text encoded within an engraved cipher:

It’s buried out there somewhere. Who knows the exact location? Only WW knows.

While the most obvious choice for the identity of ’WW’ is former C.I.A. chief William Webster, we could also tentatively add Woodrow Wilson to our list of possibilities. Especially as there is a secondary link to Brown’s material, a quote from Woodrow Wilson which is regularly quoted by conspiracy theorists regarding the Illuminati. In The New Freedom, published in 1913, Wilson wrote:

Some of the biggest men in the United States, in the Field of commerce and manufacture, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.

Returning to the Knights of the Golden Circle to finish, though, there is one more candidate for the mysterious ‘WW.’ At the same time that the K.G.C began establishing its plans to take over areas of Central and Southern America, a young man named William Walker began filibustering expeditions doing exactly that. Amazingly, Walker managed to take control of the strife-torn country of Nicaragua, and duly proclaimed himself president. In short time Walker repealed the country’s anti-slavery laws, a move which made him very popular in the American South where he gained the romantic title ‘the grey-eyed man of destiny.’

It seems likely that Walker would have been linked to the Knights of the Golden Circle, considering their shared goals. If so, could the coded phrase above, referencing ‘WW’ knowing where something is buried, be a link to the buried K.G.C. treasure caches? There are more likely solutions, and we would expect Dan Brown to stick to more mainstream theories—but it is an interesting link all the same. And it makes for a good story on its own anyhow…

More information about Da Vinci in America, including a sample chapter, is available at the Daily Grail website:

Lost History

May/June 2005 – #51