Atlantis: Plato’s lost continent

Atlantis: Plato’s lost continent

A common element to all cultures is the desire to tell stories:  they serve as explanations and warnings, and a promise of better things to come.  One of the most familiar stories tells of an ancient sanctuary filled with wonders (the glittering gold of El Dorado, the apples of Avalon) – a sanctuary that’s now lost to us.  Sometimes – as with Shangri-La, and Arthur’s Camelot, the stories say they will return in the hour of our greatest need.  Sometimes – as with the Garden of Eden – they’re lost forever, taken from us as punishment for our sins.   One of the greatest of all legends concerns the lost city of Atlantis.

Under Alexandra’s harbour
Under Alexandra’s harbour

Atlantis is reputed to have had an ancient and mighty seafaring island-nation located in front of the Pillars of Hercules, nowadays associated with the Straits of Gibraltar. Its people were descended from Poseidon and a mortal named Cleito and lived good and pure lives, though eventually their mortal blood corrupted them.  The Atlanteans amassed a mighty empire and invaded Athens.  As punishment for the attack the Gods sent earthquakes and the sea swallowed Atlantis – which vanished in a single day and night.

The earliest record of Atlantis comes from two of Plato’s discourses: Timaeus and Critias, both written around 360 BC.  In them, Solon, an Athenian statesman from 600 BC, travelled to Egypt, where the priests told him the history of Atlantis, which they said existed 9000 years earlier.

Like all the stories of lost worlds, Atlantis may be just that – a story.  Even in ancient times, many people didn’t believe it was real, but simply a tool Pluto used to help his arguments.  However, parts of many ancient stories could have a basis in fact.  Troy is accepted as being more than mere myth, and it’s postulated that the Buddhist legends of Shambala can be traced to the city of Tsaparung.

With the changes in sea levels that have occurred, as well as natural disasters, it’s almost inevitable that entire cities will have been “swallowed up by the sea”, as Pluto says Atlantis was.  In fact, we know it’s happened: we have evidence of great floods (another popular mythical topic!) and underwater remains have been found all over the world, including Alexandria, Yonaguni-Jima, and in the Gulf of Cambay in India (although some of these remain controversial).   The location of the ‘real’ Atlantis has been discussed for millennia and has attracted its fair share of theories, ranging from the truly ridiculous, (space aliens or an island off Sweden), to the surprisingly plausible.

One popular theory concerns the underwater Bimini Road in the Bahamas, a somewhat odd choice of location for the Mediterranean legend of Atlantis.  The Bimini Road is a half mile ‘pavement’ of rounded stones in a long straight line.  Some claim it’s the remains of an ancient road, or a collapsed wall, or even the top of buildings.  It’s thought likely, by scientists at any rate, that it is just an unusual but natural rock formation, as there’s no evidence whatsoever of tool marks or ancient human interference.

One much more reputable idea was the ‘Spartel Bank’ theory.  The ‘facts’ provided by Plato about the island’s location and geography, the date of the civilisation, and the method of its destruction were analysed and studied, and a match was found with ‘Spartel Bank’, an island in the western part of the Straits of Gibraltar that sunk around 11,600 years ago, at roughly the time Plato gave for Atlantis.  From a geological point of view, all of the facts seem to fit – but there’s a problem.  Plato’s dialogues talk of both Athens and Atlantis as advanced classical societies, with agriculture and art, temples and aqueducts, ships for international trade and craftsmen who worked with silver and gold and bronze.  Although we can’t say anything for certain about Atlantis, Athens – along with everywhere else that’s known to have existed – certainly didn’t have an advanced society at this time.  Cattle and horses weren’t domesticated; there was no large architecture or large settlements, no ships, no roads, and no bronze work.  So Plato’s date can’t be accurate.
This means Spartel Bank can’t have been Atlantis – by the time such societies existed (around 4,000-2,600 BC), the island had long since vanished.

Sonar of the  “Atlantis Plain”
Sonar of the “Atlantis Plain”

A few years ago it was suggested that Atlantis was located between Cyprus and Syria, at a depth of about a mile.  Maps of the seafloor of the eastern Mediterranean were studied and over 50 ‘matches’ with the physical description in Plato’s works have been claimed.  Subsequently, sonar images of the sea floor showed what looked like some of the man-made canals that were present in Atlantis, but these were later shown to be natural formations, many hundreds of thousands of years old.  Due to the depth of the ‘Atlantis Plain’, further excavation is too difficult.  It is still claimed that Atlantis was located here as, even if structures are natural, it would still be an ideal spot for settlement, (at a mile underwater I hope they could hold their breath!).

A much better ‘fit’ is Akrotiri – a Minoan settlement on the Greek island of Santorini.  The settlement, which has been excavated since 1967, was destroyed by Thera (a volcano on the island), which erupted in the middle of the second millennium BC – so the society was advanced enough to match Plato’s description.  And we know that the Egyptians, who told the story of Atlantis to Solon, were in contact with the Minoans as there are Minoan frescoes at Avaris, Egypt’s capital city under Hyksos rule in the early second millennium BC.

The exact timing and size of the Thera eruption is currently under debate.   Recent estimates say that the volume of ejected material was around 100 km3 – some four  times bigger than Krakatoa in 1883.  Geological evidence suggests that the main eruption was preceded by a smaller one a few months earlier, which led to the settlement being evacuated before the main eruption.   A tsunami, probably more than 50m high, followed the explosion, possibly destroying coastal cities such as Palaikastro and devastating the northern coast of Crete.  The Minoan Empire did not fall immediately as there is archaeological evidence of their civilization above the Thera ash layer, but it was not long afterwards that the decline began.

Theran wall painting
Theran wall painting

As at Pompeii, Thera created an extremely well preserved ancient settlement.  Best known for its superb frescoes, Akrotiri has yielded impressive buildings with at least three storeys and drainage systems, as well as the usual pottery and furniture.  Unlike Pompeii, however, the evacuation of the site before the main explosion meant that many of the more precious (and moveable) objects were removed – so far, only a single piece of gold has been found and that was hidden under a floor!

Theran fishermanThe two storey West House is associated with weaving owing to the large number of loom weights found there.  It is beautifully decorated, with images of fishermen and priestesses, ikria and flowers, as well as the truly magnificent ‘Miniature frieze’, which shows a long and important sea-voyage.  The exact nature of the story told in this frieze is unclear – it shows five towns, pastoral scenes in the Greek countryside, wrecked ships and drowned men, detailed images of harbours and buildings, Aegean soldiers with their boar-tusked helmets, and exotic lands, filled with wild and mythical beasts.   The style of the paintings is interesting as it shows many parallels with Egyptian art, including different scenes shown on different registers or levels.

The impressive House of the Ladies had three storeys, two staircases and a light well (the only one found in Akrotiri so far), and was probably the private home of a wealthy citizen.  The building is famous for its paintings of female figures, possibly engaged in a ritual act, but it also contains an unusual image of Pancratium, or Sea lilies, that are painted much larger than real life.

Theran wallpaintingOf course, it’s impossible to say whether the destruction of the settlement on Santorini was the foundation for Plato’s Atlantis, but it is certainly a plausible basis for the legend.  A great empire, a city destroyed by ‘an act of the gods’, the fall of a civilisation: it’s easy to spin a yarn from those ingredients.   And, whether or not Atlantis ever really existed, it seems likely that we will go on searching for it for some time to come.  Stories of lost or hidden utopias have persisted throughout recorded history – the idea of finding them is simply too tempting to give up.

By Sophy Palmer

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