Thomas Nolf Interview: Archaeology, Nationhood, Economy, Fantasy

By Brad Feuerhelm on December 23, 2017

“as a Belgian I felt connected to Bosnia because of its struggle with its own identity as you describe it. Like Belgium, this is quite a ‘new’ country, a sort of artificial ‘construction’ of different cultural entities, a country which before its birth was always ruled over by foreign or domestic powers”

The nexus of understanding Thomas Nolf’s book “Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Imaginary Exhibition” on Art Paper Editions (APE) is the causal link between the politics of national identity, economy and fantasy. Within these elements also exists a historical imperative between scientific endeavors of an archaeology of the past and the potential implication for its political use in the present. The Bosnian Pyramids are an outright source of speculation and possible fantasy. The important discussion to have is not whether they exist as physical monuments of the past with all of the associated new age energies that are discussed along with them, but rather if they can be discussed as existing within the narrative of constructed sociological belief. The book, apart from its incredible design is a reflection about warfare, tribalism and the aforementioned fantasy. It is about how nationalism needs a fixity of heritage, no matter the hypothesis that cannot inform a theory. The theory here is about civilization, re-building inertia and the possibility for things to exist in the mind as well as the museum. Nolf’s investigation along with some help from artist Gauthier Oushoorn at the end of the book is rich in metaphorical possibility. I thank Thomas for taking the time to answer my questions that at times focused on the contentious side of how these science and political systems can be used to force meaning in the lives of everyday citizens. His answers were measured and informative and importantly, as a Belgian artist studying the post-war-torn landscape of Bosnia as an outsider; his answers were honest.

Brad Feuerhelm: I really loved this book. I tend to watch loads of documentaries about archaeology when I am in the studio. If I go through YouTube, I get loads of Egypt, some Nazca Peru stuff, and way too much pseudo-cosmic “Forbidden Archaeology” streams. Outside of Graham Hancock and Michael Cremo, whom I find enjoyable if at times dubious, there is a ridiculous amount of shad clap non-sense floating out there. I remember when I caught a bit about the Bosnian pyramids with Semir Osmanagić from about a year or so ago. I was listening first and then slowly had a look and found myself thinking “hmmmm” and not like “OMMMMM”, but more like “Hmmm, those are strange bits of geological matter”, then he started talking about the energy pouring out the top of the thing and I lost interest….

Fast forward to present and I received a copy of your book about the very topic, but presented in a much more interesting and complex arrangement of contemporary politics in Post-War Bosnia & Herzegovina…I was tempted to say identity politics, which is important to your book if we consider “Identity” as cultural, religious and economic in this case. As a Belgian, how did you find yourself taking on this project. It’s not simply about pseudo-archaeology and it’s not simply specific to the Post-War condition (Aftermath politics). So, can you tell me how it all started?

Thomas Nolf: Great to hear you appreciate the book. The best way to answer your question is to refer to the book itself because in its structure. It kind of follows the trajectory I’ve went through as a photographer engaging with this country.

The book starts with a a prologue chapter, containing a very small selection of black and white photographs of the first trip I made two years before I actually knew about the existence of pyramids and other peculiar artifacts in the country. It was the period when I just started photography and honestly I didn’t have a concrete plan apart from a vague idea to depict the post-war landscape of Bosnia. Looking back to that period I think it was rather an excuse
 to travel and to develop my photography skills. I had that very romantic notion of being a photographer traveling with my Mamiya 6×7 and tripod through ‘The Balkans’ depicting the landscape.

Apart from that, as a Belgian I felt connected to Bosnia because of its struggle with its own identity as you describe it. Like Belgium, this is quite a ‘new’ country, a sort of artificial ‘construction’ of different cultural entities, a country which before its birth was always ruled over by foreign or domestic powers. The Bosnian war of the nineties is one horrible example of that fragility. That being said, I did not have the intention or ambition of trying to depict these complexities or to look for any hisotrical traces of these invasions. I didn’t had any checklist whatsoever. Rather, I was naively wandering from place to place, seeking how I could visualize the idea of reconstruction in a more metaphorical sense. The image of the house (Plate III) is somehow an example of that.

 This naivity didn’t survive long. I came back with a lot of landscape photographs and I remember a former Bosnian refugee living in Brussels criticizing the places I had visited and photographed. His opinion was that I only visited ethnically purified areas and didn’t ‘capture’ the entire country at all. 

It is exactly this critique which haunted me for some time and brought up many questions I had regarding documentary photography. The more time that passed by, the more I felt that I was an outsider seeking an exoticism in a very sensitive geography. I was like the French photographer Maxime Du Camp on one of his ‘photography expeditions’ to the Orient during the 19th century or a western journalist during the Sarajevo siege.

This problem of morality in war reporting in Sarajevo is beautifully explored in Marcel Ophul’s “Troubles We’ve Seen”.

But , apart from my personal confrontation with this new moral compass, I was very quickly aware that there wasn’t any other option if I want to further engage with this region. More and more I found it interesting to stay in that outsider position and profoundly play that character if I wanted to be further engaged with this country.

So when a few years later in 2014, I found an article on the Internet saying that a Bosnian is claiming the oldest and greatest pyramids are not in Egypt but in Bosnia that I was reconsidered traveling back to the country. I immediately felt the romantic potential in a very struggling post-war Bosnia-and-Herzegovina and now thought it would be interesting to step further in the footsteps of Du Camp (who I think was the first one photographing the pyramids in Egypt) and to photograph this very romantic story. In a way I felt I was invited by the subject instead of the other way around. The story was that strong that I had to go to see it.

 I immediately sent an email to the discoverer Dr. Osmanagich asking him what I can do for his organization as a western photographer to visualize his artifacts and archaeological sites, etc. I literally wanted to work for him and he invited me to join his guided tours through the country. Of course this was a certain maneuver of trying to get in as many photographers do. But I had a double agenda, I genuinely wanted to work for him because I found it an interesting idea to put myself at the service of a project which was not mine. I wanted to see what would happen.

The reason I did include these black and white landscape photographs as a prologue in the book is because it’s exactly within these difficult post-war reconstruction times that the whole story of Bosnian pyramids and stonespheres are set. By creating this sociological atmosphere (enforced with the article ‘Godot arrives in Sarajevo’, written by Srecko Horvat’à), I wanted to make clear to the reader that this book is as much about politics as it is about archaeology. To conclude: what for me was important from the very beginning was not merely what pyramids are but what they can possibly do for the community.

From my sociological perspective I don’t believe in true science, because science always serves a greater goal.”

BF: The title of the book in its full context of “Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia & Herzegovina- And Imaginary Exhibition” hints at the state of belief about the pyramid, but also of the travelling spheres and misplaced stones holding a sacred national energy. The “imaginary” could yield to not just an exhibition that never happened, but also to the potential of there being these systematic pursuits of individualized identities for the claimants of descendants to use as justification of nationalism. It is to state that the war, its aftermath and the very uncomfortable juxtaposition of religious belief systems, ethnic identity and history within the confines of archaeology all co-mingle to distort tradition and secularization into a militarized potential with little division in between. When you were there speaking to people, did you sense a national fervor at work, a patriotism at the dawn of nationalism, or perhaps anger and sadness still hanging over from the war? I read sadness within the educational and academic voice over concern that this escape with the pyramid was only happening due to the closure of proper research facilities and teams to man them after the war due to the economy and general state of post-war trauma. What does it feel like being in between so many positions and how did they view the work you and Gauthier Oushoorn were engaged in?

TN: If my main interest was in the subject, it wasn’t merely what pyramids are but what they do for a community. I felt I also had to extend a new fundamental notion towards what my own practice as an artist was. This means that I could not merely visualize what these pyramids and other artifacts are or photograph how local people are building tourist shops around the archaeological sites, but also I had to challenge my own inherent sense of perception within the project. I did this of course in the book and have edited all these images towards the construction of a narrative by combining it with text and found footage. But to explore what these photographs could do for a community, similar as a tourist gift, made by a local bosnian near the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun which could give him an economical return , I had to properly understand the country and its needs.

I started doing more and more research about the post-war condition- ‘the aftermath’ and I spoke with many people. One important person for me was a political analyst named Kurt Bassuener because he really gave me great insight into the discourse.
More and more I became aware of this disullisional state that the country is in, about false promises that are made by local and international politicians. These are the promises which stay in the imagination because of the failing Dayton peace agreement. 

So when I visited the National Museum of Bosnia and found out that it had been closed for several years because within the post-Dayton agreement, there was no legal status to properly fund that institution, I thought the pyramid story is so strong that it might be a subject that could possibly help fund it in the future. Hence, I proposed a funding exhibition to the pre-historic wing curator. I chose that location because it’s the only space that until today is empty because there is no money to repair the damage inflicted from the Sarajevo siege.

So, to answer your question… Yes, “the imaginary” refers first of all of the national museum authorities not accepting my request. In that way my project stays imaginary or a ironic, even a symbolic attempt. But it also refers to the the dissuliosnal state of the country, which of course makes it possible for individual identities to imagine a new past and claim it, to search for a new start, with an ancient Bosnian civilization X. And of course this also has dangerous side effects, for the small group of ‘real’ archaeologists in Bosnia whom try to do their job and for an institution such as the museum and its workers which would feel their authority undermined if they accepted the pyramids inside their museum.

BF: The book meanders through cultural heritage that is already in a trifecta of parts from the Muslim identity, to Orthodox, and finally to the Catholic Croats. B&H in its current condition, and as alluded to in the book makes it clear that the reason the pyramids are even considered locally as a site-specific location of pilgrimage is due to economics, but also in some minor way, it is used as a way to try and politicize and absent dream of a monolithic geological feature- To rally specific tribalism and to potentially shape a claim to the anomaly. Isn’t this a highly dangerous manoeuver given the already fractured condition of the local identities? Do you believe that Semir is potentially, if accidently unravelling a new tribal fervor under the guise of nationalized and tribalized archaeology?

TN: During the past years I’ve heard many different opinions. I met the guy a few times while working on this project, but still cannot unravel his ‘true’ intentions or goals. Though what I make up from the few conferences and tours I’ve attended is that I firmly believe he is on this mission to change the entire way of how we look at our ancient history. But of course, there is that fractious condition in which this country is currently in as you mention, which of course makes it dangerous to be claimed by one of the three entities, but in great extent this not the case. Although the pyramids are located in a Bosniak (muslim) territory, from all the people I’ve met who are in this quest of proving to the world that these cluster of hills are actually pyramids, I didn’t feel any urge for a nationalistic claiming. Of course, the story isn’t that attractive for nationalistic orthodox or catholics in a very divided Bosnia as is today. Recently there was a politician from the Serbian side that was claiming that this territory in its origins is a Serbian orthodox region. So, the pyramids would have been built by Serbian ancestors within his -of course questionable interpretation of history. But in general this is a very open archaeologic project in which every person, regardless of their religious or ethnic background can participate. These pyramids are something which is perceived as ‘Bosnian’.

“If the pyramids would not be real, could they still generate economic benefits for a society which for centuries has been subjected to outsiders writing false biographies and promises, Why not to celebrate a new national story created from inside, regardless if there is doubt about its truth?”

BF: I would like to remark that this sort of “Archaeo-Nationalism” is not specific to B&H. It operates all over the world, especially when it comes to the origins of human kind. From Lucy in Africa to the Caucasian mummies of the Gobi Desert and most poignantly to the pyramids in Egypt, these sites are often abused for their historicism and political value to render their position as “firsts” or as something greater in human civilization than that of the “other”. In doing so, we find that an important scientific pursuit to study humankind can be subverted quite easily into the realm of the political and economic. Every time the board of Egyptian antiquities meets, Zahi Hawass gets a paycheck. He has the power to literally end excavation and subvert new finding such as the “empty void” in the great pyramid if he finds the narrative does not match the tourist board or his needs. The power of an archaeologist to subvert is rarely spoken of and yet it can be greater than that of a presidential cabinet and longer ranging, historically. Are you personally under the impression that as time goes by and as the 18th Century-present interest in archaeology continues, we may actually be finding out less and less about human civilization due to the factors mentioned above or are you of the mind that archaeology, that even pseudo-archaeology can be of use?

TN: In the book there is an interesting article written by Osmanagich about the political pressure Hawass gave on the Bosnian Pyramid Project. What is striking is that Hawass tried to stop the excavation before having done proper analysis. There was the anxiety of losing their power position on the pyramids and of course tourists. I would agree that indeed because of this political and economical value which operates within the sciences we are finding less and less about human civilization. But I wouldn’t split up politics and economics from archaeology. Every archaeological site in the world is influenced by ideology and power. Calling one site a real archeological site and the other one pseudo-archeological says as much about the ideological framework that makes naming them as such as it does about objective truth. From my sociological perspective I don’t believe in true science, because science always serves a greater goal.

BF: Fair point. I use “pseudo-archaeology” only in the sense of common dialogue and not necessarily as my own belief system. I am more prone every day to think the whole of civilization and its material remains have been undermined both by science and religion/political ideology and that it is much older than “real” archaeology can anticipate.

One of the clever things this book did was to use a quote from a perceived academic source as the first piece of text in which you ask them about including their thoughts in the project. To paraphrase, the nature of the response is interested, but in effect calls you out as a Westerner looking in and admits to not fully understanding the purpose of you meddling into B&H affairs regarding the politics of the pyramid. You used this in the inside cover and I think it was a conscious and perfect way to dismantle those aforementioned constraints of “outsider looking in”. Did this sort of set the dialogue for you in the beginning? Did you feel as an outsider when working with the local community and institutions? What intention did you have in choosing this particular project and do you feel that the book exemplifies or draws any conclusions?

TN: As mentioned at the end of the first question at a certain point I chose to totally play this character of the Western outsider. Instead of trying to become an insider I found it more genuine to stay the Belgian in Bosnia and have my own agenda. Similarly, as to how the EU diplomats and the United States and NGO’s have their own ambiguous agenda and interests, it seemed to suit. The very first text at the inside of the book is for me of main importance because it raises the for me most important question: If the pyramids would not be real, could they still generate economic benefits for a society which for centuries has been subjected to outsiders writing false biographies and promises? Why not to celebrate a new national story created from inside, regardless if there is doubt about its truth?

BF: Have you had any feedback from those involved or the local community about the book, have you been back and do you feel that you have dispelled a bit of the pyramid fever or simply deepened its aura in commenting on it with this publication?

TN: When I presented the book in June 2017 some people got the ironic yet serious side of the project, others were very much offended. I think this was quite unavoidable. But it is quite ironic that it was the Habsburg Empire (the former EU) who has built the National Museum and it immediately manipulated archaeological results to construct a new national biography and place it within that exact building, very much which was a tendency that was happening all over western Europe in that century (The century of the construction of the Nation State). Although the book includes a translation in Bosnian, I don’t think it has reached the larger public as of yet. I don’t think I have the power do that. That being said, I still think an exhibition about pyramids would do just that.

While finishing this project I always had Susan Sontag efforts in mind. Besides her writings on topic such as photography, she travelled many times to Sarajevo during the siege and directed Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” at the National Theater, while outside mortar shells where exploding. With the play she wanted to give the signal to the Western world to intervene. 

I think the play would still fit for a Bosnia of today, although I doubt its relevance regarding the needs of the country. As a good friend of mine Smirna Kulenovic told me: “People don’t care about culture or art, they first want food and money”. That’s the reality when doing a book presentation in Bosnia.

Thomas Nolf

Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia & Herzegovina – an imaginary exhibition


(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Thomas Nolf.)