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Atlantis: A Review Essay

The Atlantis tale, of course, is not folklore in the strict sense. Every mention of it goes back to a written source, Plato's dialogs the Timaeus and the Critias, in which it is claimed that a record preserved in Egypt was brought to Greece by Solon and eventually transmitted to Plato. Only those who, like the White Queen, are willing to believe "six impossible things before breakfast" can take Plato's description literally. In addition to its internal inconsistencies and obvious exaggerations, there is the now well established geologic fact that no sizeable landmass has been submerged in the Atlantic Ocean as recently as 11,500 years ago, if ever. Even before the ocean floor was as well known as it is today, serious investigators of the Atlantis problem faced a choice of two alternatives: either Atlantis had a historical basis, but the facts as given by Plato are distorted out of recognition; or else Plato invented it to prove a philosophical point. (In the latter case, of course, he could have incorporated scraps of tradition based on real places or events.) By judicious selection of those parts of the account to be taken literally and those to be taken as distortions, seekers after a historical basis can make a case for almost any part of the world as the site of Atlantis, and indeed there is hardly any part of the world which has not been nominated. Three books published in 1969 are all concerned with the possibility that Atlantis was Minoan Crete: Atlantis: The Truth Behind the Legend, by A. G. Galanopoulos and Edward Bacon (Babbs-Merrill, 216 pp., $12.50). Lost Atlantis: New Light on an Old Legend, by J. V. Luce (McGraw-



Hill, 224 pp., $9.95). (Published in England under the title The End of Atlantis; Thames and Hudson.) Voyage to Atlantis, by James W. Mavor, Jr. (G. Putnam's Sons, 320 pp., $6.95). Crete was first suggested about 60 years ago,1 not long after the Minoan civilization had been brought to light by Sir Arthur Evans' excavations at Knossos. At the time the suggestion attracted no more attention than many another, and was almost forgotten. Why then the present revival of interest in that particular site? Because there now is reason to believe that the sudden collapse of the Minoan empire may have been the result of a natural catastrophe, the Krakatoa-like eruption of Santorin (Thera)2 some 60 miles to the north of Crete. For the first time a candidate has appeared which offers both of the essential motifs of the Atlantis tale - a rich and powerful nation, destroyed in a natural catastrophe. Any works concerning Crete as the basis of Atlantis, therefore, necessarily involve a discussion of the theory of the volcanic destruction of Minoan Crete, and any evaluation of such works necessarily involves an evaluation of that theory. Archeologists had long been at a loss to explain the wholesale destruction of Minoan palaces, mansions, and whole towns and villages at the end of the period designated, on the basis of pottery styles, "Late Minoan I B." Evans suggested earthquakes, but it was difficult to understand why the Minoans had not rebuilt then, as they had several times in the past after destructive shocks. The Greek archeologist Spyridon Marinatos,3 finding water-worn pumice in the ruins of the palace at Amnisos, thought of the tsunami 4 generated by the colJapse of Krakatoa in 1883. Surely the tsunami from the collapse of the even larger Santorin caldera,S
K. T. Frost, "The Critias and Minoan Crete," Journal of Hellenic Studies 33 (1913), 189-206. 2 The names "Santorin" (or "Santorini") and "Thera" are often used interchangeably. In this article, "Santorin" will be used to designate the volcano (which before the Bronze Age eruption constituted a single island but now consists of several); "Thera", which is the name of the main island as well as the political name of the group as a whole, will be used to designate only the main island of the present group. 3 Spyridon Marinatos, "The Vo 1canic Destruction of Minoan Crete," Antiquity 13 (1939),425-439. 4 A Japanese word uscd internationally as a scientific term to denote a sea wave generated by displacements of the sea floor (usually in earthquakes). Such waves are popularly but erroneously called "tidal waves." , A caldera is the depression formed when a volcano collapses into the void left after the eruption of vast quantities of material.



smashing ships and harbor installations and drowning of thousands on the coast of Crete, would have dealt a mortal blow to a nation dependent on the sea for its prosperity and defense. An earthquake was still needed, however, to account for the devastation of inland sites. 6 Strong reinforcement of Marinatos' theory was provided by a study of deep-sea sediment by two American oceanographers,7 which revealed that volcanic ash from the Bronze Age eruption of Santorin must have blanketed the whole eastern end of Crete, its most habitable part. In that climate just a few centimeters of ash might have been enough to ruin the land for agricultural purposes for some time, and it is estimated that there could have been as much as ten centimeters of it, on the average. In short, Minoan Crete may have succumbed to a combination of disasters, all associated with the eruption, sufficient to render even the strongest nation of its time vulnerable to the first invader. Problems remain to be solved before Marinatos' theory is universally accepted. The most critical question is that of the timing of the eruption. As the ruins buried under the lowest pumice layer on Thera have yielded none of the "Marine Style" pottery diagnostic of Late Minoan I B, archeologists assume that the first pumice fell before that style of pottery was in use, and therefore at least 25-30 years before the general destruction of Crete. This is consistent with earlier interpretations of the geologic evidence on Santorin, which seemed to indicate that there had been two highly explosive phases separated by a prolonged interval of milder activity. However, several of the world's leading volcanologists who were present at the International Scientific Congress on the Volcano of Thera in 1969 were unanimously of the opinion that a violent pumice eruption could not possible have lasted a generation, or even a few years. When a convincing explanation is put forward which can reconcile the absence of "Marine Style" on Thera with a relatively brief climactic phase at the end of Late Minoan I B, the only serious objection to Marinatos' theory will have been removed. And as there are still enough variable or unknown factors involved in both the archeological and geological evidence,
• Although volcanic shocks accompanying eruptions are never responsible for damage outside the immediate vicinity of the volcano, the known history of Santorin shows that major eruptions have been preceded or followed, within months or a couple of years, by major earthquakes originating at depths of the order of 100 kilometers under the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, capable of doing damage over a wide area. , Dragoslav Ninkovich and Bruce C. Heezen, "Santorini Tephra," Colston [Research Society1 Papers 17 (1965), 413-452.



there is good reason to hope that this "generation gap" will yet be closed. When Marinatos first proposed his theory he immediately recognized its implications for Atlantis, and in 1950 published a paper in which he suggested that Plato's Atlantis was a synthesis of several traditions spanning some nine hundred years, but which had as its core the violent end of Minoan Crete as a result of natural catastrophe. However, as this paper was in Greek,vt was not widely known until an English version was published in 1959 for the aforementioned Congress. s Therefore the current interest in Atlantis, as demonstrated by the appearance of three books in quick succession, plus countless articles in scientific and popular periodicals and newspapers, stems largely from a paper by the Greek seismologist A. G. GalanopouJos. 9 He proposed that not only Atlantis, but the Greek flood tradition of Deukalion's Deluge as well, should be attributed to the Bronze Age eruption of Santorin. He suggested that Plato was describing two separate places, the Metropolis of Atlantis, which was on the island of Santorin, and the plain around the Royal City, which was the Mesara Plain on Crete. Furthermore, he explained the discrepancies in both times and space by postulating a translation error which caused all measurements over 100 to be exaggerated tenfold. This proposal was followed by a series of papers in which he elaborated bis ideas, and went on to link the Plagues of Egypt and the parting of the waters10 and also the Phaethon mythll to the Bronze Age eruption. The book written by Galanopoulos in collaboration with Edward Bacon, archeological editor of The Illustrated London News, presents these ideas on Atlantis, Deukalion's deluge, and the Exodus in some detail, and mentions Phaethon in passing. It is a handsome volume, lavishly illustrated with both color and black-and-white photographs, drawings, and pertinent maps. It is well worth reading, provided one keeps in mind that the authors tend to accept uncritically some "evidence" which does not stand up to objective scrutiny. The first section of the book, "What Plato Meant
, Spy rid on Marinatos. " On the Myth of Atlantis" [in Greek], Kretika Chrol1ika 2 (1950). 195-213. Spyridon Marinatos, "Some Words about the Legend of Atlantis", Archaiologicon Delfion 12 (I969), 46 pp. • A. G. Galanopoulos, "Tsunamis Observed on the Coasts of Greece from Antiquity to Present Time," Annali di Geo/isica 13 (1960), 369-386. 10 A. G. Galanopoulos, "Die agyptischen Plagen und der AUSZllg Israels aus geo!oscher Sieht," Das Alterturn 10 (1964), 131-137. 11 A. G. Galanopoulos, "Der Phaethon-Mythus im Licht der Wissenschaft," Das Allerlurn 14 (1968), 158-161.



and Said," goes to some pains to establish a fact which should be selfevident - that the Atlantean culture described by Plato was a Bronze Age culture and therefore could not have existed as long ago as 9,000 years before Solon's time; the glimpses of various Bronze Age cultures, although interesting enough in their own right, thus seem unnecessary. The second section, which demolishes a number of the best-known theories concerning the location of Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere, contains much skilfully and accurately presented geologic information. It is marred by only one relatively minor technical flaw. The "argument of the vitreous lava" (glassy basalt dredged from the At1antic Ocean floor at a depth of about 10,000 feet in 1898, a rock type originally thought to be formed only under atmospheric pressure and temperature conditions and thus to constitute evidence of submergence of a land area) is countered by arguments showing how a rock formed on land could be carried to deep water by an iceberg or turbidity currents (as does happen); but as it is now known that glassy basalt can be formed on the sea floor in waters even deeper than 10,000 feet,12 and are common on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the vitreous lava argument could have been disposed of much more simply. The sections headed "Geophysical Facts and Theories" and "Case Proven," which present the cases for the volcanic destruction of the Minoan empire and for the identification of that empire with Atlantis, contain a mixture of arguments which are geologically sound and arguments which are not. For instance, the suggestions that Plato may have been describing two different places, that floating pumice could have been the origin of the "muddy shoals" marking the site of the submerged Atlantis, and above all, that Deukalion's Deluge as a memory of the Santorin tsunami, all merit most serious consideration. But the calculations of the initial height of the tsunami neglect the vitally important factor of the influence of local topography and bathymetry on the height of run-up of such waves on a distant shore, in the first place, and are based on a formula which for mathematical reasons cannot be used in reverse, in the second place. Furthermore,"the authors assume that the caldera collapsed all at oncergenerating on~ huge tsunami, whereas it is at least as likely (and probably more so) that it collapsed in several stages, as did Krakatoa.
12 James G. Moore, "Petrology of Deep-Sea Basalt near Hawaii," American Journal of Science 263 (1965), 40-52.



But whatever the initial height, the tsunami(s) generated by the collapse of the volcano would have been most destructive on the coast of the Greek mainland, particularly the Peloponnese, as well as on the north coast of Crete, and the suggestion that the Santorin tsunami is the origin of the Deukalion tradition is an inspired one. Long ago Richard Andree 13 noted that the earliest versions of Deukalion's Deluge (devoid of the Biblical elements present in the more familiar versions) told of a sea flood ("Meerflut"), and suggested an earthquake-generated tsunami as the origin of the tradition. Deukalion's Deluge was regarded by the Greeks as historical fact, and its supposed date falls close enough to the time of the Bronze Age eruption to warrant connecting the two. It seems logical that the only Greek tradition of a worldwide flood (all the others are local) should be associated with what could have been the most general flood ever experienced in Greece - for, as pointed out by Galanopoulos and Bacon, heavy rains caused by the presence of large quantities of volcanic ash in the atmosphere could have contributed to flooding in inland areas at the same time. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the tradition which marks the beginning of Greek national consciousness may be associated with the same catastrophe which, if Marinatos' theory is correct, was responsible for the rise of the Greek mainland to ascendancy in the Aegean world. As presented by Galanopoulos and Bacon, the case for identifying Atlantis with Minoan Crete is weakened by insistence on a too-literal matching of archeological and geographic facts, or inferences based on such facts, to Plato's words. For example: to fit Santorin to the description of the Metropolis of Atlantis necessitates several assumptions as to its natural pre-collapse geography, together with modifications by the hand of man which would have been a formidable engineering feat even in soft volcanic deposits. But assuming for the sake of argument that Santorin was the site of the Metropolis, it is still thoroughly unrealistic to think that traces of its concentric harbors can be recognized on the present bay floor. Whatever was not obliterated during the collapse would now be covered by the new volcanic edifice (whose tip is the Kameni Islands in the middle of the bay), built up precisely where the center of the Metropolis is presumed to have been situated.

Richard Andree, Die Fill/sagen, e/hnographisch betmchtet (Braunschweig, F. Vieweg und Sohn, 1891), pp. 40-41.



As for the link between Santorin and Exodus, there is no doubt that some of the direct and indirect effects of the eruption would have been felt in Egypt and would have been very terrifying (particularly the blackout caused by the ash cloud at the climax), although I believe a more convincing case could be presented than has been given by Galanopoulos and Bacon. But their case for the tsunami as the basis for the parting of the waters miracle I4 rests first on the assumption that the site was on the Mediterranean coast (where some Biblical scholars do believe it was), and then on a chain of coincidences in timing which seems a miracle in itself. In attributing the Phaethon myth to lightning displays and ash fallout from the eruption, they miss a more likely cause of the idea the earth was burning up, even though they mention it in another context - flaming sunsets such as those seen in various parts of the world after the Krakatoa eruption (a common result of the injection of large quantities of ash into the atmoshpere), one of which was so spectacular that fire brigades were called out in two American cities. I5 Luce's book, a close second to that of Galanopoulos and Bacon in format, covers much of the same ground but from a substantially different viewpoint. Luce's approach is based mainly on the evidence from archeology and tradition, and is much more cautious and critical, both in connection with the volcanic destruction of Minoan Crete and with Atlantis. In fact, Luce is overcautious when it comes to the tsunami, for he tends to underestimate the possibility of serious destruction from that source as much as Galanopoulos and Bacon overestimate it. But if anything, this is an error in the right direction, for the ashfall (to which he gives proper emphasis, as Galanopoulos and Bacon do not), is certain to have been detrimental to agriculture and therefore to the prosperity of Crete and, if as thick as believed, might even alone have paved the way for invasion by the Myceneans. Luce too seems to accept as fact that the story of Atlantis was brought from Egypt by Solon and handed down to Plato, and attempts to reconcile various details of Plato's account with Minoan Crete. Although his arguments frequently differ from those of Galanopoulos and Bacon, they
" Tsunamis are usually preceded by a withdrawal of the waters to a point far below normal low tide level. " Dorothy B. Vitaliano, "Bemerkungen zu A. G. Galanopoulos, 'Der PhaethonMythus im Licht der Wissenschaft'," Das Altertum 16 (1970), 82-83.



likewise are sometimes too strained to be convincing - for instance the elaborate derivation of the name "Atlantis" from "Keftiu," the Egyptian name for Crete. Yet his final summation of the case for a Minoan Atlantis cannot be faulted for its circumspection. On the whole, Luce's book can be recommended strongly, particularly for its presentation of the archeological evidence concerning the destruction of Minoan Crete (including an authorized account of the early stages of Marinatos' excavations at Akrotiri, on Thera), and for its compilation of local traditions which might be references to the Santorin tsunami. Strangely enough, while Luce is willing to attribute to that tsunami a number of flood traditions which could equally well be memories of other (earthquake-generated) waves, he is reluctant to consider Deukalion's Deluge one of the probable consequences. He prefers to connect it with flooding of the Copais Lake basin, which both Andree16 and Frazer1 ? associated with Ogyges' flood. (Frazer considered Deukalion's Deluge to be a "myth of observation," associated with the supposed formation of the Value of the Tempe; it is interesting to conjecture what he would have thought had he known that the Santorin collapse happened at about the right time.) Siding with those Biblical scholars who accept a date of circa 1200 B.C. for the Exodus, Luce dismisses the possibility of any link between it and Santorin. His main argument against it is the fact that the ruler of Egypt at the time of the eruption was the powerful Tuthmosis III. However, J. G. Bennett,18 who first proposed that the Plagues of Egypt might be linked to the Santorin eruption, pointed out that the Bible does picture Pharaoh as a stern and strong ruler, who could be persuaded to let the Israelites go only in the face of some terror before which he was powerless. Mavor's book, less impressive in format than either of the others, is also less impressive in content. Essentially it is a personal account of the author's two expeditions to Santorin seeking evidence (mainly on the floor of the bay) that it was indeed the site of the Metropolis of Atlantis. Although his enthusiasm for proving Galanopoulos' theory apparently provided the catalyst which led to the current excavations at Akrotiri
16 Andree, loco cit., p. 40 . ., James G. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (London, 1919), "The Great Flood," pp. 104-361. IS J. G. Bennett, "Geo-physics and Human History: New Light on Plato's Atlantis and the Exodus," Systematics 1 (1963), 127-156.



(which are proving to be of inestimable archeological value), that same enthusiasm, untempered by discretion, led to a clash with Marinatos which ended in Mavor's being barred from further work on or around Thera. The detailed chronicle of this conflict may appeal to those who find pleasure in gossip columnists' tidbits, but for others it is merely embarrassing, and tended to leave this reader's sympathies with Marinatos. Although the book contains technical information not given in either of the others which may be of interest to some - notably, descriptions of the geophysical instruments and procedures used to survey the floor of the caldera and other submerged areas around Santorin - the pertinent information on the Bronze Age eruption and its consequences is scattered throughout in such disorganized fashion that the book cannot be recommended as a lucid presentation of either the case for the volcanic destruction of the Minoans or the case for an Aegean Atlantis. Consistency is not Mavor's strong point. On page 61 we find the statement: "So, between 1450 and 1400 B.C., the greater part of the island of Thera collapsed into the cavernous abyss left by the eruption of cubic miles of ash and pumice ... ", and on page 64 we read: "The only warning of the approaching sea waves came as air blasts generated by the collapse of the central mountains of Thera .... The seismic waves followed insidiously, rushing unseen across the sea of Crete to crash upon the shores thirty minutes after their birth at Thera." But then on page 70, after a quotation from the Book of Jeremiah (42 : 2,4) concerning the destruction of the Philistines, the "remnant of the country of Caphtor [Crete]" by waters which rose out of the north and overflowed the land, we are brought up short by the incredible statement, "We can speculate that they [the Philistines] were refugees dislodged by the Thera catastrophe who had fled Crete and settled in Palestine in time to experience the flooding from the north, which was felt as far as the African coast" - and this, when any waves generated by the collapse would have reached Palestine within a few hours (and essentially from the west to boot)! After encountering such reasoning in the early pages of the book, the discerning reader can hardly fail to have doubts about all that follows. One other detail might be mentioned inasmuch as it has received worldwide newspaper publicity, and is taken seriously by Galanopoulos and Bacon as well. The finding of a "fossilized" monkey's head on a beach on the east coast of Thera is cited by Mavor as proof that Cretan royalty visited Thera, which Hi turn is taken to mean that Thera therefore was



the Metropolis of Atlantis. Even if it were a fossil dating from the eruption, the presence of a pet monkey on Thera at best would merely indicate that wealthy Minoans lived there - and even before they were recognized as Minoan, the ruins excavated in the nineteenth century had already revealed that the pre-eruption inhabitants were comfortably off, a fact amply confirmed by the new finds at Akrotiri. But neither Mavor nor Galanopoulos and Bacon offer any explanation of what would constitute an unprecendented case of fossilization - replacement by lava - in terms that would satisfy any paleontologist. The monkey head is much more easily explained as an artifact of unknown date. Faith in the reliability of Mavor's scholarship is further undermined by frequent clues to its superficiality and carelessness, such as his citation of a 1939 date for K. T. Frost's paper on the Critias and Minoan Crete,19 which suggests that he never read the original, but only the reference to it in a paper20 in which the date is given thus incorrectly; his consistent misspelling of the name Ninkovich ("Ninkovitch"), a name second only to "Marinatos" in connection with the volcanic destruction of Minoan Crete; and his inclusion of a very eye-catching cyrillic entry in the bibliography, which not only is so incomplete that it would be impossible to find the work in any library, but is so garbled that it leaves the unfortunate impression that the author knows no Russian at all and inserted the entry merely to impress. Mavor's obviously keen interest in mythology, which led him to seek the site of Atlantis in the first place, is evident throughout the book. In addition to those myths mentioned by Luce and Galanopoulos and Bacon, he brings in several not mentioned in either which he believes may be connected with the Bronze Age eruption. Some may be; but a work which refers to the Babylonian god Ea as "the wise goddess of the nether sea" does not inspire confidence in the soundness of its folklore background either. All in all, it seems to this reviewer that none of the three works makes the best possible case either for the volcanic destruction of Minoan Crete or for an Aegean Atlantis. The former would be far better served by concentrating on the most likely, or even the minimum possible, effects of the eruption on the Minoans, rather than on the maximum; the latter


Frost, foe. cit. Ninkovich and Heezen, loe. cit.



would profit by less insistence on an exact fit between various details of Plato's account and what is known of Minoan Crete and Santorin. There is absolutely no doubt that a very great eruption occurred, and that it occurred during the time interval in which (a) Thera was evacuated and then buried in ash, (b) the general destruction was accomplished on Crete, and (c) the Deluge of Deukalion is thought to have occurred, and also possibly the Exodus. The absolute magnitude of the eruption as a whole can only be "guesstimated," but judging from the widespread distribution of the ash fallout revealed by the deep-sea cores, it is certain that the climactic paroxysm(s) of the eruption must have been the most awe-inspiring event ever witnessed, or experienced more remotely, in the Aegean or in the Mediterranean area as a whole. If it can be demonstrated that even its minimum effects on the Minoans would have led (directly or indirectly) to their downfall, then even the most skeptical must be convinced of the fundamental validity of Marinatos' theory. Finally, it would be more surprising than otherwise if the various manifestations of the eruption, as experienced in various places, did not generate a number of myths and legends and traditions, including one or more which could have led, directly or (more probably) indirectly, to Plato's Atlantis. But the connection between Santorin and Atlantis, although intimately bound up with the volcanic destruction of Minoan Crete, is not entirely dependent on it and will be much more difficult to prove. Only if some pre-Plato documentary evidence should turn up to identify Atlantis beyond all doubt with the Minoans would the question be settled once and for all, and as that is unlikely to happen even if the identification is correct, we can be assured that, despite the optimistic title of the British edition of Luce's book, we have not yet heard "the end of Atlantis."
U. S. Geological Survey21 Bloomington (Indiana) Unit


Publication authorized by the Director, U. S. Geological Survey.