Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In Search of... Atlantis

Do a web search for "Atlantis" and you'll find a lot of dubious claims about this legendary island civilization. The story of Atlantis, as most people know it, comes from the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. According to his writings, Atlantis existed about 9,000 years before Plato himself wrote. The people of Atlantis were an advanced and prosperous civilization who grew too arrogant and were eventually destroyed by the gods. He describes their island city in some detail, describing a sophisticated canal system and multi-story buildings with indoor plumbing. The story of Atlantis was supposedly brought to Greece by another philosopher named Solon, who learned it in Egypt.

Assorted psychics and other supernaturalists have tried to attach themselves to the Atlantis legend, including Ramtha-channeler JZ Knight. They've made wild claims about the achievements of the Atlantean civilization and claimed to have located the city everywhere from the Indian Ocean to shallows of the Carribean Sea. Some have even postulated an entire continent in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, now sunk beneath the waves. Needless to say, none of their expeditions to these places have turned up anything substantial.

You'd think with all the woo surrounding the story of Atlantis that scientists would want nothing to do with it, but scientists actually studied this story fairly seriously. They've looked for an ancient civilization that fits Plato's description and predates him, preferably located where its tragic tale might have found its way to Greece. Their search resulted the History Channel program called Lost Worlds: Atlantis, which I found myself watching a few nights ago.

Modern scientists have traced "Atlantis" to the Santorini island group which lies north of Crete. Crete itself contains ruins of the Minoan civilization, which was far more advanced than any of its Mediterranean contemporaries, at least in the field of architecture. The Minoans built a multi-story palace at Knossos on the northern coast of Crete that included earthquake-resistant reinforcements and indoor plumbing. They seem to have accomplished many of the "wonders" that Plato describes in his tale of the doomed city. The Minoan civilization fell at about the time of the Thera eruption in 1500-1600 BCE.

Thera is one of the islands in the Santorini group, but it was not the center of the eruption. Thera is just one of several islands that form a ring-shape in the Aegean sea. All of these islands, save one, are part of the rim of a volcano. The central island, Nea Kamini, is the top of the caldera of the volcano. Nea Kamini is a young island that has formed since the Thera eruption. It's quite likely, however, that a similar island existed before the Thera eruption. If "Atlantis" was on this volcanic island, then it truly would have been obliterated in the Thera eruption, since that island would have been the center of the largest volcanic explosion in human history.

Modern archaeologists did not rely on channelling the spirits of dead Atlantean citizens to locate the lost city. They did the hard work of digging out artifacts, dating them, tracing their origins, fact checking against Egyptian records, identifying new sites, digging more, and analyzing their finds to determine that the Minoans had colonized the Santorini islands in the second millenium BCE. They dug through thirty feet and more of volcanic ash and pumice to find the ruins of a Minoan city on Thera. Real science has done more to determine what truth might lie behind Plato's tale of Atlantis than any channeler, dowser, or other psychic has ever done.

If the full truth of the tale of Atlantis is ever going to be found, it's going to be found by scientists, not psychics.


Red Baron said...

Excellent post! I wish that the history channel would highlight more of what's happening in archaeology rather than Nazi and Biblical fluff.

Charles said...

Good post! And I also agree with Red Baron.
I am however skeptical of the eruption of Santorini (Thera) as a source of the Atlantis myth.
I found "Imagining Atlantis" by R.Ellis to be a good overview of the history of the legend.
I am concerned that knowledge can be lost when someone is digging to prove their thesis. Overeager archeologists can end up ignoring (and losing) interesting, if unrelated, materials if they are in the "wrong" level.
That being said I trust anyone who conducts a proper dig (no matter what their theory) a heck of a lot more than someone "channeling" Ramtha

Lord Runolfr said...


It should probably be noted that the scientists studying Santorini won't go out on a limb and say that they've definitely found Atlantis. They won't even say with assurance that Atlantis was ever a real place.

What they do say is that the Minoan civilization is consistent with Plato's description of Atlantis, that they colonized Santorini, and that the Thera Eruption was most likely the cause of that civilization's fall.

There's no way to tell if there was ever a city on an island in the middle of Santorini. There's certainly nothing on Nea Kamini now, and if there was a central island before the eruption, it was completely obliterated in the eruption.

Helena said...

Here is the actual text from the Critias that introduces the Atlantis story (well, a tranlsation).

I will tell an old-world story which I heard from an aged man; for Critias, at the time of telling it, was as he said, nearly ninety years of age, and I was about ten. Now the day was that day of the Apaturia which is called the Registration of Youth, at which, according to custom, our parents gave prizes for recitations, and the poems of several poets were recited by us boys, and many of us sang the poems of Solon, which at that time had not gone out of fashion.

one should note that that the recitations at the Apaturia were supposed to be on the most fantastic fantasies the boys could imagine.

The mention of Atlantis in the Timaeus is on the authroity of an Egyptian tour guide.

Most classicsists who have studied the matter conclude that Plato is using these devices to signal that the story is a pure invention, not to be taken as a real fact.

Classical Greeks had a general sense taht Greek civilization ahd reached its peak in the distant past and ahd been declining ever since (the myth of the metallic in hesiod, for example), but there is no reason to think that they ahd more specific knowledge of evvents in the bronze age than what is contained in Homer.

Anyta said...

It's a very interesting story! While traveling around Santorini I was wondering at its beautiful and extraordinary places! We visited several hotels, and one of them (On The Rocks Hotel) had magnificent views of the Aegean Sea, Volcano and the spectacular sunsets for which the island is world renowned.

L said...

1. He said he was told the story by a 90-year-old man - on the day of the Apaturia. It wasn't one of the boys who told the story.

2. The New Oxford American Dictionary says, "ORIGIN late Middle English : via Latin from Greek Atlantikos, ... The term originally referred to the Atlas Mountains in Libya, hence to the sea near the west African coast..." That location is fitting with the general location of Santorini. It would make sense that if he didn't know the name of the place (Minoa), he would give it one of his own that was descriptive of its location.

Saranga said...

That's a good overview.