Posted on

The Mystery of Nan Madol

Columnar basalt built by in a header-stretcher technique, Nandowas Islet World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Columnar basalt built by in a header-stretcher technique, Nandowas Islet
World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report

About 3000 miles southwest of Hawaii, near the equator, lies the island of Pohnpei and one of the world’s most mysterious archaeological enigmas, Nan Madol.

Pohnpei  is one of the Senyavin Islands which are part of the Caroline Islands group. It belongs to Pohnpei State, one of the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The Federated States of Micronesia is an independent sovereign island nation and a United States associated state. It includes Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae.

1883 Drawing of Nan Madol from Südsee-Erinnerungen (1875-1880) by Franz Hernsheim - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
1883 Drawing of Nan Madol from Südsee-Erinnerungen (1875-1880) by Franz Hernsheim

Nan Madol was already long abandoned when the first Europeans saw it in the 1800s.

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan

Nan Madol had been mysteriously abandoned about a century before. Early missionaries sent back reports of the mysterious ruins by the 1850s. Researchers and explorers followed. They recorded and mapped (and looted) the site.

The city or Nan Madol is built in a lagoon. It consists of 99 small artificial islands linked by a network of canals.

Basalt Columns at Giant’s Causeway in Ireland
Giant’s Causeway – A Different Visit to Ireland

Massive stone structures, up to 23’ tall, were built on the islets.  They are enclosed by walls constructed of thousands of basalt “logs,“ naturally prism-shaped columns like the ones at Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, each having between five and eight sides, up to 18 feet long and weighing more than five tons.

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan

The whole thing is surrounded on three sides by a massive sea wall.

Nan Madol has been called “Atlantis,” the “eighth wonder of the world,” or the “Venice of the Pacific.”

“The Nan Madol settlement complex is built on artificial islets extending across a shallow reef platform within the fringing reef of the adjacent small island of Temwen on the south-east coast of Pohnpei. Navigable tidal canals were created between the islets which were constructed with walls of basalt and coral boulders and filled with coral rubble from the reef and soil from Temwen Island. Erected on top of the islets were monumental stone structures, some with walls 6-7 metres high. Formed by lengths of prismatic/columnar basalt laid in header and stretcher patterns, the walls surround tombs, residential domains, and sites for sacred and ceremonial activities.

“The complex is surrounded by a massive sea wall on the north-east, south-east and south-west…”

World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan

How to Reach Nan Madol

There used to be only one way to reach Nan Madol. Along the sea wall at the south-eastern side at the shoreline by the reef lagoon is an ancient canal open to the sea. It is only accessible at very high tide

Now a tourist trail has been constructed. An elevated causeways runs from the land entrance on Temwen Island to Nandowas.

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Walls constructed of dark grey columnar basalt pieces
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan

Massive Walls of Nan Madol

Vertical detail of the stacking of columnar basalt pieces to create a thick wall at Nan Madol - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Vertical detail of the stacking of columnar basalt pieces to create a thick wall at Nan Madol, Pohnpei, Micronesia
Photo by Jebrennan

Massive walls, some as long as a city block, appear first. These walls were built of huge basalt columns stacked crisscross.

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol
Photo from NOAA

The walls are 10 to 15 feet thick and 25 to 30 feet high. Higher towers reach into the sky.

Nandowas Islet World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Nandowas Islet
World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report

Network of Man-made Canals

Nan Madol means “places in between” or “spaces between.” It is thought to refer to the canals and waterways that run through the ruins.

Nan Madol was designed for water traffic. The canals are as wide as four-lane highways. They are quite shallow. Even at high tide, they are only waist-deep with a coral bottom. Perhaps this was to prevent enemy ships from making it into the city.

Once you get to the island, you can explore this maze of man-made islets and canals built a thousand years ago on this shallow reef on the edge of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei.

Man-made Small Islands

There are 99 man-made islets. Each built in various shapes and sizes with a different purpose; residential food preparation, canoe making, coconut oil preparation and ceremonial dancing. Fifty eight of the small islands were dedicated to the mortuary.

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan

The royal mortuary islet of Nandauwas has walls 18 to 25 feet high. There is a large courtyard guarding a stone vault.

Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Ruins of Nan Madol in Pohnpei
Photo by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan

Nearby is an underground passage with a narrow opening. This small, dark underground chamber was likely a prison. The door is a two-ton stone.

How did they build Nan Madol?

The small islands were man-made. They were built with coral boulders then filled in with coral rubble and soil.

Withered trees on a structure made stacked basalt columns, Pahnkedira World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Withered trees on a structure made stacked massive basalt columns, Pahnkedira
World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report

But, how did they get the massive heavy stones in? Just one of the foundation cornerstones is estimated to weigh 50 tons. The canals are shallow. A raft would sink to the bottom under that much weight.

The closest place where this basalt could have come from is miles away.

Legends

One legend says that two brothers, Olisihpa and Olosohpa, were given magical power to fly the columns with help from a dragon. The legend says that Olosohpa later married a native. Their descendants at first ruled benevolently as the Saudeleur clan. Later, the Isokelekel invaded and ruled from Nan Madol. It is said they are the clan that inexplicably abandoned the capital.

Another legend has it that Pohnpei once had an advanced society that knew how to control sound waves to levitate the huge columns.

Massive walls of Nan Madol - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Massive walls of Nan Madol
Photo by Dr. James P. McVey, NOAA Sea Grant Program

What Archeologists Think

Archeologists have found evidence that Nan Madol was built over centuries. It seems the main island was inhabited as far back as the first century. They started building artificial islands artificial islets—stone and coral fill platforms by the eighth century. And sometime around the late 1100s they started bringing in the massive columns.

Nan Madol was the capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty. The Saudeleur Dynasty united the people of Pohnpei , estimated some 25,000 people, until about 1628.

“It is estimated that the small island populations quarried, transported and laid 2000 tons of volcanic rock every year for at least three to four centuries without the benefit of pulleys, levels, metal tools or wheels.”

World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report

Archeologists believe that palm tree inclines were built to laboriously hoist the stones into position.

Fragment of a wall at Leluh on Kosrae, Micronesia - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Fragment of a wall at Leluh on Kosrae, Micronesia
Photo by Maloff1

Local tradition claims that the builders of Leluh on Kosrae migrated to Pohnpei and they built Nan Madol. But, radiocarbon test indicate that Nan Madol is older than Leluh.

Where did everybody go?

Was Nan Madol conquered? Did disease or a typhoon wipe them out?

Did something affect the food supply? Nothing grows on Nan Madol and there is no fresh water. Everything must be brought in. It seems that no more than 500 to 1000 people ever lived here.

Why were the islands abandoned? We’ll probably never know.
It had been deserted well before the first Europeans saw the Mystery of Nan Madol.

Map showing the boundaries of the Nan Madol Archaeological District World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report - The Mystery of Nan Madol – Greetings from the Past
Map showing the boundaries of the Nan Madol Archaeological District
World Heritage Centre International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) Report

Nan Madol Archaeological District

Nan Madol archaeological district covers more than 4448 acres.

It includes the stone architecture, the Temwen Island coral reef and artificial islands and the Pohnpei main island coastline. The main site is  along the shore and the adjacent land. The site core with its stone walls encloses an area nearly a mile long by 1/3 mile wide with nearly 100 artificial small islands bordered by tidal canals.