Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Atlantis?

Why are people still looking for Atlantis? I hate to break this to all of you enthusiasts, but Atlantis never existed. Plato made it up. Looking for Atlantis is like looking for Utopia, Middle Earth, Narnia, or Whoville. Consider these people, who made it into the news looking for Atlantis in the marshes of Spain. Never mind that, as imagined by Plato, Atlantis was an island out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Could the fabled lost city of Atlantis have been located?
No. Does anyone have any more questions I can answer while I'm at it?
Using satellite photography, ground-penetrating radar and underwater technology, a team of experts (led by University of Hartford professor and archaeologist Richard Freund) has been surveying marshlands in Spain to look for proof of the ancient city. If the team can match geological formations to Plato's descriptions and date artifacts back to the time of Atlantis, we may be closer to solving one of the world's greatest mysteries.
Using ground penetrating radar to look for Atlantis is like sending a space probe to search for Barbie and Ken's Malibu Dream House. And there isn't any mystery about Atlantis -- Plato made it up. Actually, come to think of it, maybe there is a mystery. Why do so many people insist on taking this philosophical exercise seriously? And not just kooks, but producers for National Geographic:

A new National Geographic Channel documentary, Finding Atlantis, which will be broadcast nationally on Sunday, March 13, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, follows a team of American, Canadian, and Spanish scientists as they employ satellite space photography, ground penetrating radar, underwater archaeology, and historical sleuthing in an effort to find a lost civilization.

Why didn't they just call me before they started? I could have saved them a lot of trouble.

When a space satellite photograph identified what looked like a submerged city in the midst of one of the largest swamps in Europe, the Doña Ana Park in southern Spain, Freund was contacted to see if he could assemble his team to apply their cutting-edge technology (electrical resistivity tomography, which is a virtual MRI for the ground [no, it isn't, but whatever], ground penetrating radar, and digital mapping that quickly and efficiently maps the subsurface of a site and provides instantaneous results for excavators to follow) to this project. In 2009 and 2010, they worked with Spanish archaeologists and geologists to explore the remains of an ancient city that goes back some 4,000 years. . . . in the vast mudflats of the Guadalquivir river delta, scientists examine strange geometric shadows of what look to be the remains of a ringed city. Here, geophysicists and archaeologists employ the most advanced imaging technologies in the world to determine whether or not an ancient cataclysm suddenly buried a thriving civilization under meters and meters of ocean and mud.

This is actually kind of cool. An ancient city drowned in a marsh! Why do they have to drag Atlantis into it?

However, the ultimate solution to what happened to Atlantis was not resolved in the south of Spain but in Freund's discovery of a series of mysterious memorial cities built in the image of Atlantis in central Spain.

Ah, the ultimate solution. Here's a helpful hint for you; whenever you encounter the words "ultimate solution," stop reading and find something more productive to do with your time. I do not know and am not really even curious about how these "memorial cities" are supposed to resemble Atlantis. I have encountered arguments like this many times before, and it always turns out that since Plato says the citadel of Atlantis was round, with a rectangular temple of Poseidon in the center, any construction featuring a rectangle within a circle is a memorial to it. Or something else equally vague and general.

Perhaps you are wondering what Plato actually said about Atlantis. In the Critias, he includes a story supposedly told to Solon by wise priests in Egypt about events before the flood, 8,000 years before Solon's time. Atlantis was "an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Hercules" (i.e, the Straits of Gibraltar), "larger than Libya and Asia combined" -- Asia here meaning Asia Minor. Atlantis had a great empire extending nearly to Egypt, but it was overthrown by the men of Athens.

But afterward there occurred violent earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of rain all your warlike men in a body sunk into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared, and was sunk beneath the sea.

And that is the reason why the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is such a quantity of shallow mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.'

There is no chance that anything about this account is true. Perhaps it indicates that legends about islands out in the Atlantic were current within the Mediterranean world -- why not, since such legends are commonplace, and there really were large islands out in the Atlantic. But by setting this story before the flood, Plato is cuing you in that this is a myth where you should not be looking for literal truth anyway.

The famous description of Atlantis comes from the Timaeus, which tells us that when the world was divided among the gods, Poseidon recieved the island of Atlantis:
On the side toward the sea, and in the center of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains, and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the center of the island, at a distance of about fifty stadia (one stadia=606 feet), there was a mountain, not very high on any side.

In this mountain there dwelt one of the earth-born primeval men of that country, whose name was Evenor, and he had a wife named Leucippe, and they had an only daughter, who was named Cleito. The maiden was growing up to womanhood when her father and mother died.

Poseidon fell in love with her, and had intercourse with her; and, breaking the ground, enclosed the hill in which she dwelt all round, making alternate zones of sea and land, larger and smaller, encircling one another; there were two of land and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe out of the center of the island, equidistant every way, so that no man could get to the island, for ships and voyages were not yet heard of.

He himself, as he was a god, found no difficulty in making special arrangements for the center island, bringing two streams of water under the earth, which he caused to ascend as springs, one of warm water and the other of cold, and making every variety of food to spring up abundantly in the earth.
Does that sound like a real place to you? And it only gets worse from there. That city laid out like a target, with alternating zones of water and land, received walls of covered in metal, the innermost of gold and silver, and it was connected to the sea by a canal 100 feet deep and 5 miles long. Etc.

People started taking this notion seriously within a few centuries of Plato's death, demonstrating that we moderns have no monopoly on gullibility. People like stories about fabled lands just over the horizon, and cities that have sunk into the sea. People like to imagine fabulous places and disasters that reshape the earth. But there never was an island outside the Pillars of Hercules, nor any great city with circular moats, and 9,000 years before Plato's time the people of the region were a bunch of goatherds.


Katya said...

So... I take it that you don't think Atlantis is a mythologized description of the volcanic explosion on Santorini?

John said...

No. What about Plato's Atlantis matches Santorini? Yes, Santorini blew up, but the city did not sink under the waves, it was buried in volcanic ash. Santorini was a small city clinging to the side of a steep mountain, not a vast multi-ringed metropolis in the center of the "fairest plain."

I imagine that our interest in sunken cities may be fed by the fact that some places do disappear under the waves, but neolithic humans lived through an enormous rise in sea level that drowned whole nations, and that strikes me as a more important source of such legends than any one volcano.

Meg said...

Actually a large portion of the island of Santorini sank into the sea when the volcanic eruption occurred. That's why the island is now crescent shaped. In antiquity, the island was known as Thera and was occupied by a substantial sized settlement of Minoans at Akrotini, as well as others on the island. The Minoans were a very advanced civilization (they even had flushing toilets), so it is always possible, but who really knows.