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Lost and Found

<i> Brian Fagan is the author of many books on archaeology, including "From Black Land to Fifth Sun," "Time Detectives" and "Into the Unknown." General editor of "The Oxford Companion to Archaeology," he is a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara</i>

The Lost Continent of Atlantis still casts a peculiar spell on those who prefer their ancient civilizations overthrown by sudden cataclysms or obscured by swirling mists. The spell has mesmerized respected classical scholars, to say nothing of the lunatic fringe, and inspired Hollywood directors to make trash movies. Atlantis figures prominently in the eclectic correspondence I receive and file under the label “insane.” Many of my correspondents believe that scientific archeology has got it all wrong, that the sunken continent awaits a gifted archeologist’s spade or snorkel gear at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean--off Bimini in the Bahamas, in the Aegean Sea or even under the Antarctic ice sheet.

All this folderol comes from brief references to Atlantis in Plato’s “Critias” and “Timaeus,” set down in the 4th century BC. Since then, generations of mystics, philosophers, scholars and the truly eccentric have probed his every word. An enormous literature of at least 2,000 books and countless articles has tried to establish when, if and where Atlantis existed. Bold is the writer who quarries even part of this obscure, often contentious and sometimes pathetic archive. Fortunately, Richard Ellis saw a rich garden of possibilities in Plato’s story. “Imagining Atlantis” is the stimulating and beautifully written result.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Ellis admits right at the start that the long-lived mystery is effectively insoluble and incapable of being tied up in a neat, satisfying package. He starts his journey at the source with “Critias” and “Timaeus,” which contain the same legend occupying a few lines: an attack on Athens by the Atlanteans and the ensuing stalemate. Violent earthquakes and tidal waves overwhelm the warring armies. The gods punish the Atlanteans for their aggression, and the island of Atlantis, situated beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) in the Atlantic, sinks beneath the waves as described in “Critias”: “There were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night . . . the island of Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and vanished.” Ellis points out that no other classical author ever mentioned Atlantis, not even the historian Herodotus, who is said to have spoken to the same Egyptian priests as Solon, Plato’s informant. So Atlantology is actually the study of both Plato and of those who have quoted and embellished the story.

The great philosopher’s successors took Atlantis and turned it into a chimeric place that assumed many forms and occupied many locations. “Imagining Atlantis” takes us on an entertaining journey through the arcane world of mythic islands, psychics and pseudoscience. The Roman scholar Aelian proclaimed that the lords of Atlantis were descended from sea rams, animals that never existed on earth. The Elizabethan Francis Bacon wrote in 1627 of an Atlantis-inspired island named Bensalem in the Pacific, 5,600 miles around and blessed with fertile soil. “The Lost Continent” came into its own in the 19th century, notably with the writings of Ignatius Donnelly, a short, red-headed lawyer with a remarkable gift for self-persuasion. His “Atlantis: The Antediluvian World” appeared in 1882 and is still in print. Donnelly’s masterwork is a curious melange of misunderstood geology, anthropology, mythology and linguistics that creates a vision of a golden past. Like Plato, he conveyed a message from the Atlantis story that power corrupts and inevitable downfall follows a rapid rise to dominance. Donnelly acquired many followers, among them mythologist Lewis Spence, who believed that Atlantis sank into the Atlantic, leaving only Madeira and the Antilles as evidence of its passing.

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Even archeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s grandson got in on the act in 1912 with stories of an owl-headed vase bequeathed him by his grandfather, which led him on a trail to the lost Atlantis. By this time our heads are reeling with the bizarre, but there is more to come. Ellis leads us through the fantasy literature of the mystics like Madame Helena Blavatsky and psychic Edgar Cayce. The latter claimed the citizens of Atlantis had harnessed atomic energy and inspired gentlemen like Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley of New Jersey, under the influence of Tarot readers and marijuana, who searched for Atlantis off the Bahamas in the 1960s and 1970s.

Eccentrics and quacks have no monopoly on Atlantis. Many respected scientists--archeologists, classicists, geologists and oceanographers--have studied their Plato and searched for scientific clues on land and on the sea bed. Many of them have become obsessed with an aspect of the story or with a small fragment of scientific data, which gave them a stepping-off point. Inevitably, much of their research begins on the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea where a disastrous and well-documented, eruption in 1450 BC blew the center of the island into space. Enormous tidal waves flowed out across the Aegean and far beyond Crete and Cyprus. Volcanic dust darkened the sky and covered thousands of acres of farmland on nearby Crete. The respected Greek archeologist Spyridon Marinatos uncovered the ash-smothered Minoan village of Akrotiri on Santorini in the 1960s and posed the question of questions: Was Crete’s Minoan civilization the legendary Atlantis, destroyed in a cataclysm of awesome violence dimly remembered centuries later in folk tales?

A generation of distinguished scholars, among them the classicist J.V. Luce, has argued from a wide variety of archeological and literary sources that Crete was indeed Atlantis. Almost certainly Crete coincides with an island known to the Egyptians as Keftiou, which lay at the northwestern edge of the known world. In their heyday, the Minoans visited Egypt regularly and are depicted on temple reliefs at Thebes. According to Luce, Keftiou vanished suddenly from Egyptian ken, devastated by seismic sea waves and volcanic ash to become the Atlantis of ancient legend.

The Minoan theory is the most convincing of all the Atlantean hypotheses, largely because it starts with a known and devastating catastrophe on a scale that would cause unimaginable destruction today. The skeptical Ellis dissects every angle of the Minoan scenario. He describes Englishman Arthur Evans’ epochal excavations at the Palace of Knossos, which defined Minoan civilization. Evans found evidence of earthquake damage at Knossos but was unable to establish the precise cause of its downfall. Ellis takes us on a tour of well-documented cataclysms in modern times, which provide possible analogies for the Santorini disaster. We visit the terrible Mt. Pelee eruption of 1902 and the Krakatau explosion of 1883, whose sea waves killed 40,000 people in Java alone, and analyze some of the tsunamis that have devastated places like Hilo, Hawaii, as recently as 1960. Ellis admits that it is tempting to connect the Minoan civilization with Atlantis, as many scholars have done, but he remains a skeptic because a vital link is missing that actually connects legend with historical fact. For a start, Knossos bears no resemblance to the fortified palace that, according to Plato, was the glory of Atlantis, nor are there many specific similarities, just generalities like a prowess at seafaring and a magnificent royal residence. The difference between what Plato tells us and who the Minoans were is simply too great.

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There is no question that the Atlantis legend has some basis in fact. The question is, what fact? Did Plato compile his account from ancient folk memories that survived into his lifetime, or did he make it all up? Ellis argues for fiction. He believes that buildings, people and events of Plato’s time influenced his thinking and made an impression on the story he created. The magnificent Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and Athens’ own Parthenon were the architectural marvels of the day. Plato lived through the disastrous earthquake of 373 BC, which submerged the coastal city of Helice in the Peloponnese. A massive epidemic had decimated the population of Athens in 425 BC, causing unimaginable suffering. (Ellis speculates whether this might have been an Ebola outbreak transmitted by green monkeys imported from Africa.) Lastly, the conquest of Athens by Sparta in 403 BC was a traumatic experience for anyone living in the city at the time and a graphic illustration of the sudden turns of human existence.

Four years before this catastrophic event, Socrates had drunk the hemlock, a miscarriage of justice which traumatized his loyal disciple. Disillusioned with democracy and the once glorious city, Plato wove a brilliant story of power, prosperity and catastrophic downfall in the “Critias” and “Timaeus” that made unconscious use of his own world. Perhaps Plato was so disappointed with his own world that he indulged in fictional vengeance. He imagined a wonderful, prosperous civilization, then destroyed it. As Ellis remarks, it really does not matter whether Plato’s story is a true story, a myth, a parable or even science fiction. Its strength lies in its universality and the fact that it means something to so many people. Ellis ends cogently: “It is Plato’s story, and his alone, and no amount of mysticism, reinterpretation, scuba diving, or archaeology will ever change that.”

“Imagining Atlantis” is a remarkable detective story by a writer with a wonderful combination of healthy skepticism and impressive research skills. He concludes that "[o]ne may close this book believing that Atlantis was in the Sahara Desert, underwater in the Bahamas or reposing on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, but for the record, I think it was entirely Plato’s creation.” He certainly convinced this reviewer. This is, quite simply, the best book on Atlantis ever written and almost the last word on the subject. Anyone interested in lost civilizations should look no further.


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