The ruins of the lost city of Nan Madol: a pearl in South Pacific4 min read
Off the coast of a remote Micronesian island are the ruins of a once-great city of man-made stone islands, that represent the remains of megalithic architecture on an unparalleled scale in Micronesia. Ruins that, in addition, have inspired the city of R’lyeh in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
Evidence of the earliest human activity in the area dates back to the first or second century BC, while the construction of artificial islets started probably about 8th and 9th century AD. However, the megalithic structures were built in period of 12th to 13th century, about the same time as the stone construction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The complex of Nan Madol is built on a series of artificial islets in the shallow water next to the eastern shore of the Pohnpei island, linked by a network of canals. The site, often called the “Venice of the Pacific”, encloses an area approximately 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide and it contains nearly 100 artificial islets.
The islets were constructed by placing large rocks and fill atop submerged coral reefs to form raised platforms, which supported elaborate buildings. The complexes were built primarily from columnar basalt, a volcanic rock that breaks naturally to form massive rodlike blocks that make an ideal building material.
According to local legend, the stones used in the construction of Nan Madol have been flown to the location by means of black magic. Archeologists have located several possible quarry sites on the main island, however the exact method of transportation of construction material is still not determined.
Nan Madol seems to have housed the ruling elite caste of Saudeleur dynasty. It was a political and ceremonial seat of power and it served, in part, as a means by which the ruling Saudeleur chiefs both organized and controlled potential rivals by requiring them to live in the city rather than in their home districts, where their activities were difficult to monitor.
The highly stratified social system at Nan Madol is the earliest known example of such centralized political power in the western Pacific area. Within the city, social hierarchy was reflected in the size of the residences built within the complexs, the largest being the homes of the chiefly elite. Excavations of these elite residences have revealed the presence of beads and other ornaments, which may have marked their owner’s social status.
Most of the islets served as residential area, however some of them served special purpose, like food preparation, coconut oil production or canoe construction.
Madol Powe, the mortuary sector, contains 58 islets in the northeastern area of Nan Madol and the centerpiece of the whole complex is the royal mortuary at the islet of Nandauwas, with a 7.5m high walls surrounding the central tomb enclosure.
The population of Nan Madol was probably more than 1000 at a time when whole population of Pohnpei barely reached 25,000. There were no sources of fresh water or possibilities to grow food on Nan Madol so all supplies had to be brought in from the mainland. The population of the city probably included a large number of commoner servants.
An intriguing aspect of Nan Madol is the close correlation between the oral history of the site, passed down through the centuries, and evidence unearthed during archaeological excavations.
Oral traditions make references to small canals cut into the islets, allowing sacred eels to enter from the sea so that they could be honored through the sacrifice of captured sea turtles. Subsequent excavations have revealed traces of both the small canals and the sacrificial turtles.
Nan Madol had been abandoned by the time the first Europeans arrived, early in the 19th century, most likely declining at the time of the fall of the Saudeleur Dynasty in about 1450. Some have claimed that the ruins are the lost islands of the hypothetical lost continent known as Lemuria, although there is no scientific backing for this claim (or, for that matter, for the existence of Lemuria at all).
Lovecraft used the story of the ruins as the basis for his R’lyeh, a fictional sunken city and home to Cthulhu, appearing in the short story “Call of Cthulhu”: “The nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh … was built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults … until the end.”
And the real island of Pohnpei is also mentioned in the story.
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