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Questing for the Sunken City



Rob Hardy


The good news is that the lost civilization of Atlantis has definitively been found. The bad news is that it has definitively been found over the centuries in one place after another by crackpots and mostly amateur archeologists. Whether all their efforts are worth it or not, the Atlantologists have a great deal of enthusiasm and have kept alive a legend (or is it?) that everyone knows about. Tracking the legend and the history of the quest to find the lost city is the aim of Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City (Dutton) by Mark Adams, who has before written on the definitively found Machu Picchu. Adams is a perfect guide, with good-natured skepticism and a fine sense of humor. "Most of the university experts I'd approached about Atlantis has equated the futility of searching for it with hunting down the specific pot of gold that a certain leprechaun had left at the end of a particular rainbow." But those nay-saying boffins aren't much fun; Adams instead goes all over the world to visit those on the Atlantis quest, generally smart people who have turned up various hypotheses that hinged on "tsunamis and other improbable agents: volcanic explosions, mistranslated hieroglyphics, the ten biblical plagues, asteroid impacts, Bronze Age transatlantic cocaine trafficking, and the Pythagorean theorem." There's some real history in Adams's book, and a sense of wonder (sometimes at the oddity of our fellow humans), and a good deal of fun.



Everything we know about Atlantis comes from one source, and since he is a cornerstone of Western thought, wondering about Atlantis is never going to cease. It was Plato who described Atlantis in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, wherein the characters of the title and others chat with Socrates about diverse subjects. Socrates includes the stories of an ancient power that lost a huge battle to Athens 9,000 years before his retelling of the story. Plato included specific details about the city. It was the richest city ever, abounding in crops, lush plants, and elephants. It was larger than Libya and Asia, it was near to the Pillars of Heracles, and Poseidon himself had laid it out in perfect concentric circles of land and water. The humans of Atlantis obliged by digging a canal to the sea ten times bigger than the Panama Canal. Plato got the story as passed down from many oral historians, supposedly coming from an Egyptian priest who heard it centuries before. The discussants in the dialogues treat Atlantis as a real place. It is significant, however, that most modern philosophers, the experts on Plato and his ideas, dismiss Atlantis as a fable, an invention that Plato created to illustrate political concepts. One archeologist Adams interviewed was similarly dismissive, pointing out that no one is hunting for the true location of the famous Cave of the Ideas, shadows within which Plato used as a fable to demonstrate our shadowy comprehension of reality.




The sort of flood connected with Atlantis has been the stuff of legend since people started telling stories. Adams makes the analogy of the quest for Atlantis with that for Noah's ark, which has "almost certainly consumed more money and hours than the search for Atlantis." At least the searchers for the ark have a specified locale upon which to do their digging, while the Atlantologists have speculated that their city is now somewhere beneath the Atlantic, or in Spain, Morocco, Crete, Santorini, Malta, or Antarctica. There are thus plenty of places to be investigated, all of which are sincerely believed in while none of which are completely consistent with Plato's descriptions in the primary source. Some of the Atlantologists take inspiration from Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman but more importantly a self-taught historian, who in the 1870s showed that Troy was an archaeologically researchable site.



One of the self-taught was a former congressman from Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly, who set out to prove that Atlantis had been a real locale, and brought forth Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1883. Donnelly cherry-picked items from Plato and any other historical source he found helpful, and demonstrated that the citizens of Atlantis had invented the pyramids, mummification, and circumcision. Donnelly included some of the inventions of his own time, giving the Atlantans credit for them. Maybe they even had gunpowder. But Atlantis, according to his version of its history, sank into the middle of the Atlantic in a day and a night, leaving just the Azore Islands as remnants. Donnelly said the newly understood Gulf Stream continued to flow clockwise around where Atlantis had been. Refugees from the flood traveled all over the world, which is why, Donnelly explained, there are so many cultures that have flood myths. Donnelly's work was the inspiration for many of the ideas of the current Atlantologists.



Of course, they aren't hunting in the middle of the Atlantic. Adams goes to plenty of their areas of research, and when it comes to someplace like Akrotiri on the island of Santorini (which has a very circular harbor and is thus a candidate for Atlantis's remains) he is able to describe closely the serious archeology going on. There are also overlaps with academically excavated regions in Egypt, Spain, and Crete. The archeologists doing the digging, however, don't think much of the Atlantologists. And the Atlantologists don't think much of each other, unless between them there is agreement on the locale of the ancient city. Adams goes to many of the locations, and hears boosters for Malta, Crete, the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the lost Greek city of Tartessos, and a site on the Spanish coast near Cadiz, and proponents explain about how that particular site is more feasible than all the others, and what is wrong with all the others. After all this work, Adams has to conclude that all the candidates seem more or less plausible, and all reflect the enthusiasm and bias of their proponents. He even comes up with his own idea, and is advised by an expert on the subject, "Mark, you should be perfectly happy to come up with your own conclusions, whether they agree with mine or not. There's no one dealing with this subject who isn't speculating."



The speculation will never end, barring the discovery of an inundated city at the center of concentric rings and inscriptions that prove it to be the Utopia that people have forever been seeking. It is fascinating to see how influential the legend has become; Adams easily shows its connections to Comte de Buffon, Jacques Cousteau, Heinrich Himmler, William Gladstone, James Cameron, and plenty of others who have found that the idea held some sort of meaning. One of the guides who showed Adams around a site had a fit reflection for our times, and it requires no arguing about history or geography: "I think that's the real story of Atlantis. No matter how big and powerful you get, you can disappear like that."





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