Finding Atlantis

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Despite its clear origin in fiction, many people over the centuries have claimed that there must be some truth behind the myths, speculating about where Atlantis would be found. Countless Atlantis “experts” have located the lost continent all around the world based on the same set of facts. Candidates, each accompanied by its own peculiar sets of evidence and arguments, include the Atlantic Ocean, Antarctica, Bolivia, Turkey, Germany, Malta, and the Caribbean.

The Lost City of Atlantis, first mentioned by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato more than 2,300 years ago, is known as one of the oldest and greatest mysteries of the world. According to Plato, the utopian island kingdom existed some 9,000 years before his time and mysteriously disappeared one day. Famed for having been the exhibit of all worldly pleasures in the world, this city is as enigmatic as it is inviting. Even after years of research, the exact truth about this city has not been found and that adds even more to all the folklores attached with it.

Plato, however, is crystal clear about where Atlantis is: “For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles,’ (i.e., Hercules) there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together.” In other word it lies in the Atlantic Ocean beyond “The pillars of Hercules” (i.e., the Straits of Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean). Yet it has never been found in the Atlantic, or anywhere else.

Santorini is a huge volcanic caldera -Credit Nikos Pavlakis-Alamy Stock Photo

The only way to make a mystery out of Atlantis (and to assume that it was once a real place) is to ignore it is obvious origins as a moral fable and to change the details of Plato’s story, claiming that he took license with the truth, either out of error or intent to deceive. With the addition, omission, or misinterpretation of various details in Plato’s work, nearly any proposed location can be made to “fit” his description.

It is debatable whether Atlantis even existed. For centuries, scholars viewed Plato’s writings on Atlantis as allegory. But that perspective changed in 1882, when Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), an amateur scientist, published the book “Atlantis: The Antediluvian World” (Harper & Brothers), which claimed that Atlantis was a real place. Since then, people have searched for the sunken remains of the city. In the most recent example, employees at Merlin Burrows pinpointed what may be Atlantis in Spain. The company, based in North Yorkshire, England, uses historical records and satellite data to find archaeological sites. Blackburn’s team used data taken from commercial satellites, such as Landsat 5 and Landsat 8 (which also supply data for Google Earth), to find the site, which is located in Spain’s Doñana National Park. Merlin Burrows is not the first group to claim that Atlantis is located in southern Spain. In “Atlantis Rising,” National Geographic announced that the network had found evidence that Atlantis was located in Doñana National Park, as did a 2004 study in the journal Antiquity. And Elena Maria Whishaw, director of the Anglo-Spanish-American School of Archaeology, published the 1929 book “Atlantis in Andalucia,” (Rider & Company) which hypothesized that the region was a colony of Atlantis.

It is no wonder southern Spain is a spot of interest, as people did live there long ago. In a study of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, researchers found that humans lived in what is now Doñana National Park about 5,000 years ago, according to an analysis of pollens and microscopic remains in the area’s sediment. That study revealed that the park was above sea level during certain periods, including the Neolithic and the Copper ages. Researchers also found that Doñana National Park sits upon Holocene sediments that started to accumulate about 7,000 years ago. If the dating of the 10,000- to 12,000-year-old concrete specimens reported by Merlin Burrows is accurate, then those samples could be from the pre-Holocene formations. But, at least for this location that date does not match up with an Atlantis-type society. However, assuming the material is man-made (which is a big assumption), from a culture-history perspective, the date was down to Paleolithic and post-Paleolithic times. These are the times of hunters and gatherers, rather than those of the creators and rulers of an extensive agricultural, cattle-breeding, maritime polity.

A birds-eye view of Doñana National Park. Image credit Shutterstock

Another idea that is persisted through the ages is that Atlantis was what is now known as the island of Santorini. That popular theory is based on the natural disaster that destroyed Atlantis; Plato was actually describing the catastrophe that wiped out Minoan civilization. Richard Ellis, who authored the book Imagining Atlantis after visiting and researching Santorini, discounts this theory, if only because Santorini is decidedly not under water.

A newer idea is that Atlantis was in what’s now southern Spain. Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford is the author of the book Digging Through History: Archaeology and Religion from Atlantis to the Holocaust, and in 2011 he led a team on an archaeological expedition to the coast of Spain, over the course of which he believes he found evidence of Atlantis. Indeed, National Geographic turned this into a documentary on Atlantis. Freund argues that it would be bad archaeological practice to discount a literary text as evidence. Freund believes that, because Plato says that the city of Atlantis was located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (or what has long been known as the Straits of Gibraltar) and that it was destroyed by a natural disaster, it is only reasonable to look for it in a marsh in southern Spain. This is also the only theory to which Rainer Kühne, who has written extensively on Atlantis, subscribes. Like Freund, Kühne, who has been interested in Atlantis argues that Plato’s text conveyed to look to southern Spain. He also believes that the catastrophe described by Plato was the one from history that took place 1,200 years before Plato’s writing. (When asked how he reconciles this with the fact that the text says that Atlantis existed 9,000 years ago, Kühne retorts that there were no calendars back then.)

Santorini is a huge volcanic caldera -Credit Nikos Pavlakis-Alamy Stock Photo

Still others apply the Atlantis name to searches that have nothing to do with Plato’s story. Part of this is because, as professor Harold Tarrant explains, “It’s the only name we’ve got” that works as such an appealing archaeological marketing technique, hence, “Brazil’s Atlantis,” which has nothing to do with the ancient legend is found. Harold Tarrant is Professor of Classics and Head of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His publications include Plato’s First Interpreters (2000) and Recollecting Plato’s Meno (2005), both published by Bloomsbury.

It seems that scientists are willing to use a metaphor from fiction or fantasy to popularize their findings and give them an air of mystery. But part of it is that other names are attached to specific geological places. On the other hand, ancient geography is sufficiently imprecise to make one suspect it could have been almost anywhere. Those who look for Atlantis and encourage others to do the same are just stirring up mystery. Which is, for Atlantis-bound adventurers, the whole point: People love mysteries and the idea that they can be the ones to solve them. If Atlantis could be anywhere, that means it can be everywhere. If anyone could stumble upon the true Atlantis, then everyone can. It does not necessarily believe that it is such a terrible thing. It gets people underwater, exploring. And anyway, myths were always supposed to be malleable, to be passed down and changed and shaped by whatever time in which they were told.

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