• Pyramids Pt.2: Gunung Padang

    Gunung Padang as Atlantean edifice
    Gunung Padang as Atlantean edifice

    In Part 1, I wrote about the inconsiderate way in which nature imitates art imitating nature, as far as large-based small-topped great lumps in the landscape are concerned. And I introduced a discussion of Gunung Padang, a site which—like the Bosnian “pyramid”—has been much touted as a true trace of the lost civilization of Atlantis, soundly based at last on Scientific Evidence. According to the claims made by its primary investigator, seismologist Dr. Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, Gunung Padang is the largest and earliest of the great monuments of antiquity so far identified, going back as far as 20,000 BC, and proving that Indonesia (or Sundaland) was the heart of an advanced prehistoric civilization until the post-Pleistocene rise in sea level.

    Hilman originally went to West Java to investigate past seismic catastrophes, with adanny4 view to ameliorating the effects of future ones. From his account in an on-site video interview with Andrew Collins, his epiphany came when he noticed andesite columns projecting horizontally out of the hillside well down from the summit, and concluded that ancient manmade construction at Gunung Padang was both older and on a vastly larger scale than previously thought. He gained the interest of the then-president, who—entranced by the vision of Indonesia as a wellspring of antediluvian high culture—funded the use of high-tech equipment for the project.


    The data have not yet been formally published, though presentations given by Hilman are available online (with a tip of the hat to Google Translator). Otherwise, much of the information comes through the lens of sensationalist news reports and pseudoarchaeological sources, particularly the redoubtable Graham Hancock, with predictably enormous scope for exaggeration and bias. The impression these sources give varies from Padang being a totally artificial construction from the ground up, similar to the pyramids of Egypt, to it being a natural volcanic hill extensively “laminated” and modified by humans over the last 20,000+ years. The latter is Hilman’s own interpretation, and he explicitly connects the site with the forgotten civilization of Atlantis.

    The position taken by mainstream archaeologists and geologists, including Indonesian vulcanologists, is that Gunung Padung is a volcanic neck of Tertiary age with ruins on the flattish summit, rather roughly constructed of lengths of the locally abundant columnar andesite. The ruins are not firmly dated, but they have traditionally been associated with the Sunda Kingdom, AD 669-1579; the only firmed dated artifacts found before Hilman’s activities were some Chinese coins and sherds from that era. Graves excavated by Hilman’s associates on the top terrace dated from the early 20th century AD.


    So who is right? Hilman’s investigations have included a whole suite of advanced remote sensing techniques plus core samples and radiocarbon dates and the loan of a bunch of army grunts to help him dig some deep holes. His data confirm that the core of the hill is volcanic in origin; and yet, the perception that the hill is a totally artificial pyramid has fair traction among the Lost-Civ crowd. The first task is to sort out Hilman’s claims from the wilder speculations of Hancock and company.

    The Shape of Gunung Padang

    Hilman sometimes calls Gunung Padang a pyramid, but admits it is not actually shaped like one. In fact, like the Bosnian “pyramid,” it only looks like one from some angles, but is otherwise more or less a long flat-topped steep-sided projection from a higher hill on the south, connected to it by a low, broad ridge. However, it is difficult to find a good picture of the hill from a distance, even from its most flattering angles, and I think there is a reason for that—in its wider context, Gunung Padang just looks like part of a range of hills, and not a very significant one.

    So they fudge it.


    The spectacular pyramidal hills you will find with an image search for Gunung Padang are actually other hills, falsely presented. The major stand-ins are Gunung Sadahurip in Java (sometimes photoshopped to make it taller and pointier), and Vidareidi and Kirvi in the Faroe Islands. Even the Bosnian pyramid is occasionally labelled as Gunung Padang. Clearly, this is misrepresentation on the part of the media and the Atlantean crowd, and nothing to do with Hilman—but it certainly makes it easier for a credulous public to think of Gunung Padang as a Giza-style pyramid.

    The Building Sequence

    As far as I can tell from this source, the basic timeline claimed by Hilman goes like this:


    1. Gunung Padang originated as a natural volcanic hill, enclosing voids derived from the lava tube. This is Layer 4.
    2. Prior to 10,000 years ago, and possibly much earlier (back to 20,000 BC), humans began to modify both the exterior of the hill, and the internal lava-tube chambers.
    3. Prior to 9,000 years ago, the hill was modified further in a major construction project that wrapped it in a skin of horizontally laid andesite columns, which effectively turned it into a step pyramid. This is Layer 3.
    4. About 7,000 years ago, descendants of the same people renovated the structure and covered the weathered surface of Layer 3 with parallel layers of stone columns. This is Layer 2.
    5. About 3,000 years ago, a new group of people arrived, repaired the damage to Layer Two, and gave the structure a major facelift. The summit was backfilled with soil brought in from below, to form the existing five terraces, while the columnar-andesite terraces girdling the hill were extended and embellished.

    Hilman is a little cautious with his timeline, but his very early radiocarbon dates have got the pseudoarchaeologists in a tizzy. Graham Hancock’s view is typical. Speculating as well that the lava chamber may be the fabled lost Hall of Records, he throws all caution to the wind:

    The implication is that we are looking at a megalithic site that has been in continuous use and has undergone continuous modification and development from before the last glacial maximum (21,300 years ago), through the meltdown of the Ice Age between 21,300 years ago and 11,600 years ago and on through to historical times.

    But even Hilman’s relatively careful timeline is ambitious—a wide-ranging hypothesis that runs counter to the human timeline built up by mainstream archaeologists.  And yet, despite the dazzling array of high-tech equipment used to gather his data, his interpretation boils down to two fundamental lines of evidence: the columnar andesite, and the radiocarbon dates. The first of these, as far as I’m concerned, is enough to blow the whole pyramid out of the water, while the second raises a large number of big red flags.

    The Andesite Columns

    Giant's Causeway, N. Ireland
    Giant’s Causeway, N. Ireland

    The process of columnar jointing, which produces spectacular arrays of hexagonal columns from cooling magma, is well understood—think of the Giant’s Causeway for a well known example. The columns at Mount Padang were clearly produced by the same mechanism, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they are of natural origin. (An entertaining exception is the idea they are not stone at all, but magnetic geopolymer columns cast in place from a slurry of ground-up lava dust and other stuff, so the structure can act as an “accumulator of ‘free energy’ transduced from planetary infrasound resonance,” but that’s another story.)


    What is in question is how the columns got into their present placements—by natural processes, or as part of a huge construction effort by some highly organized and energetic lost civilization? And again, there is no question about the columns used in the visible ruins on the summit, corresponding to Hilman’s Layer 1, which are clearly human-built. Whether his dating of them is plausible will be discussed later.

    guncorediagram2The critical controversy is over two lots of columns. The first are those underlying the summit ruins to a depth of about 15m, Layers 2 and 3 in the diagram, incidentally the layers from which all the radiocarbon samples have been taken.

    The second is the enormous mass of columns which Hilman believes were used to construct a stepped 15’-thick casing around the original hill, laid flat and perpendicular to the hillside, as shown in the sketch. In Hilman’s view, these must all be artificial structural remains because the columns are oriented horizontally, whereas columnar jointing makes vertical columns. Ergo, somebody must have moved them there and put them into that unnatural position. Hancock repeats this:

    There is no doubt that the columnar basalt elements at all depths reflect human construction since they are laid in horizontal and in some cases sloping layers, whereas columnar basalt in its natural state is found only in the vertical formations.

    So the orientation is one issue. Another issue is the source of the columns. According to an interview with Hilman published in 2015, there is no known Giant’s Causeway-style deposit of columnar basalt anywhere nearby:

    Still a mystery is the source of the columnar rocks that were used to construct the second and the first phases and also some parts in the third layer. We conducted extensive geological mapping around the entire site area, but were unable to locate the origins for Gunung Padang’s chief building materials. From six core drillings at the site, we did not encounter any natural columnar-joint rock formations. Could the ancient construction engineers have obtained them from sources outside the Karyamukti area, even beyond Java?

    Frank Joseph of New Dawn Magazine marvels at the magnitude of undertaking:

    In other words, the site’s prehistoric workers transported approximately 1,111,110,000 kilograms (1,224,790 short tons) of building materials 885 metres above sea level, up the precipitous slopes of Mount Padang. Added to their burden was a non-local source for their andesite, which had to be brought in from some distant quarry unknown to academic scholars.

    Robert Schoch, in contrast, is sure the source is local, but also proposes an awe-inspiring amount of labour:

    Rock columns had been carefully separated from each other and used to build a structure that overall appears to be a rough step pyramid, referred to in Indonesian as a “punden berundak” building. … In my short reconnaissance of the site, I did not find any rock columns in their original natural positions. Where did the stone columns come from? Were they transported to the site to build the structure? I suspect not. Rather, the rock columns found at Gunung Padang may have originated from this site. The natural lava columns may have been disassembled on the spot and then reassembled to build the punden berundak…

    To summarize: according to Hilman and the Atlantis theorists, the structure must be a massive artificial monument because natural columns are always vertical, and these ones are horizontal. And since there are no vertical outcrops in the area, then the building material must have been imported from a great distance, or a local outcrop must have been totally dismantled without breaking the columns, then carted up the hill and reassembled into the mighty monument we see today.

    But here’s the punchline. It is perfectly possible for columnar jointing to rungunchina horizontally. The cracks develop perpendicular to a lava flow’s coolest surface, as explained here and illustrated in the diagram; and horizontal jointing is particularly associated with volcanic necks and high-silica lavas, which is the situation at Gunung Padang. Indeed, such formations look suspiciously like the outward-pointing outcrops that Danny Hilman has exposed on the flanks of Gunung Padang. In short, there is no good reason to think the hill is an artificial construction just because the columns are lying flat—and that point alone destroys Hilman’s case. In which case, there is no need to wonder where the columns came from, because they were always right there.


    But what about the radiocarbon dates? The artifacts? The evidence of ancient metallurgy and electrical devices and rolling rocks and coinage and all sorts of wonderful things? What about all those highly sophisticated scientific explorations? I’ll take a look at all that in Part 3.

    Category: FeaturedScienceSkepticism

    Article by: Rebecca Bradley