Friday, June 17, 2011

Atlantis and Crete: An Unhappy Marriage

The number one hate of archaeology has to be Atlantis. The attempts to explain it away or park it somewhere safe remain a favourite kneejerk reaction from the armchair scientists. For them, the veracity of the Atlantis account as written by Plato simply cannot be, for scientists “know” a civilization cannot have existed 9600 BC in the Atlantic Ocean.

Though Plato wrote about Atlantis in a book on history, some “clever” historians have argued that it is nevertheless not a real civilization, but an “idealized state”. And they assume they can get away with it, by adding the word “philosopher” in front of Plato’s name. Others, like historian Alan Cameron, state: “It is only in modern times that people have taken the Atlantis story seriously; no one did so in antiquity.” No, Mr. Cameron; this is simply not true. Though many Greeks were
indeed sceptical of the Atlantis story when they heard it for the first time, the story in its telling and context was Egyptian in origin, introduced to the Greeks by Plato, who recorded what he had learned from Solon, the man who had heard the story in Egypt. We could classify it as second-hand evidence or hearsay, but unlike today, the few enterprising sceptical Greeks actually went to Egypt to disprove Plato’s account. When they returned home, they confirmed that Plato had indeed written the truth: the Egyptians had an account that spoke of a lost civilization, known as Atlantis. They had seen the story written on the walls of the Egyptian temples themselves.

Whereas several scientists argue that Atlantis is an idealized state, a more common trend, in vogue in recent decades within the archaeological community, is to park Atlantis on the island of Thera/Santorini, an island just north of Crete. In the middle of the first millennium BC, the volcano that is Santorini had a violent eruption that destroyed some of the urban settlements on the island, like Akrotiri, though it had a far more nefarious effect on the Minoan civilization that reigned over the Mediterranean waters from Crete to the south.
In his Atlantis account, Plato wrote how “there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.” It is the favourite passage from Plato that archaeologists and historians like to quote when it comes to the Thera=Atlantis solution, for of course Santorini was a sudden, violent event, which heralded the demise of the Minoan civilization. On the North coast of Crete, you can still see the various geological layers that testify of this event.

But what about all the other evidence, related by Plato, which does not fit with Thera and the Minoan civilization as being Atlantis? First of all, its location. Plato describes it as outside of the Pillars of Hercules, which today is better known as Gibraltar, the rocky outcrop that defines the southern tip of Spain. Thera is located inside the Mediterranean Sea, not outside the Mediterranean Sea. What about age? The volcano erupted in ca. 1500 BC, while Atlantis was destroyed nine thousand years before Plato. But most importantly: what about size? Plato gives an extremely detailed description of the dimensions of the walls of Atlantis, making it clear that the island was several hundred miles wide and long, with the “walls” of Atlantis itself roughly two hundred miles from the sea itself. This size is simply impossible to fit either on Santorini as well as on the far larger island of Crete.

When we take the three ingredients together, it shows that Thera or Crete simply could not have been Atlantis. For Thera to work as Atlantis, a tremendous redux has to occur of all the information Plato offered about this civilization. This pick and mix approach is highly unscientific, but when it comes to explaining inconvenient legends like Atlantis away, the scientific approach is the first to be thrown out. The question is: how often are we going to see science – and television stations, the BBC chiefly amongst them – regurgitate this fallacy? Atlantis is not Crete.

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