Elusive Atlantis The Legend, and the Science Behind It

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Elusive Atlantis

The Legend, and the Science Behind It


Steve Johnson, Isabel Diaz,

and Parker Smith

Issues In Science and Technology

IDS 3303

Dr. Schnackenberg

19 January 2005

Elusive Atlantis

The Legend, and the Science Behind It

The myth of Atlantis has fueled the imagination of humanity for thousands of years. According to legend, Atlantis was a beautiful, prosperous island nation that sank into the ocean after a great cataclysm. Many theories have been devised as to what may have happened to this place and where it was located, if it existed at all. In every case, these theories that walk the thin line between science and pseudoscience, but as we will see, all that glitters is not gold. It takes more than a handful of snapshots and a wild imagination to be true science.

The first recorded reports of Atlantis come from Plato, the great Greek philosopher, who wrote about the civilization in two of his famous dialogues: the Timaeus and the Critias. Plato tells us that Critias, a descendant of the Greek ruler Solon, conveyed the story of the fabled Lost Continent to him. Solon had heard the story from a priest during one of his journeys to Egypt. The destruction of Atlantis is supposed to have occurred nine thousand years before the time of Plato (Critias 14).

According to the writings, Poseidon, the mythological Greek god of the sea, created Atlantis. Poseidon gave dominion over the island to Atlas, his firstborn, for whom the continent and the surrounding Atlantic Ocean were named in honor. The stories say that Atlantis was a utopian society with a culture rich in beliefs and elaborate rituals. The Atlanteans worshiped Poseidon, erecting numerous temples in his honor. The most important of these temples was located at the center of the city, inside of which was a huge statue of Poseidon riding a chariot drawn by winged horses. Atlantis is described as an opulent city because many of the places of worship were made out of gold and silver. One of the activities performed as worship to Poseidon was the ritual sacrifice of bulls in his honor. The capital of the island was a marvelous city with unusual architecture set atop the unlikely geography of a set of concentric circles of waterways and soil. The city was crowded and bustling with merchants peddling their wares. The city even had a track for racing horses. Atlantis was also a very powerful nation, boasting a great army and a navy fleet of over a thousand ships. Plato described Atlantis as a land mass larger than Libya and Asia combined.

He identified the location of this nation as within the Strait of the Pillars of Hercules, known today as the Strait of Gibraltar to the south of Spain. The dialogues also tell us that the Atlantean people tried once to invade the city of Athens, but were defeated. The growing greed of an already powerful Atlantis angered the gods and the island befell disastrous retribution. After the failed military initiative, Atlantis was abruptly shaken by incredible earthquakes and tsunamis. In the course of one day and night, the mythical civilization disappeared into the depths of the ocean, never to be seen again. According to Plato, this entire account is factual, though no one since has been able to find conclusive proof that it is any more than a work of fiction.

Even though the story is hard to believe, people have been trying to find possible locations for the fabled Lost Continent ever since Plato put pen to paper and shared his fantastic tale with the world. Curtis Runnels, a professor of archaeology at Boston University, claims to hear at least twenty Atlantis theories every year. According to an editorial in the Boston Globe, he's heard rumors of its existence in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Utah, the North Pole, the South Pole, Great Britain, Holland, India, Malta, the Sahara, off the coast of Cuba, “and a lot of other unlikely spots” (“Mapping” A18). However, there are a number of plausible theories about the location of Atlantis that are worth consideration. Some of these theories include the Bimini Theory, the Thera Theory, and the Marisma de Hinojos / Strait of Gibraltar Theory.

The first, and perhaps most infamous, has the ancient Atlantean civilization located in the Bahamas, lying in fifteen-foot deep water north of the Bimini coast. The theory that Atlantis rested near Bimini began, not by research into Plato’s works or other historical observations, but by Edgar Cayce, a self-proclaimed healer and believer in reincarnation who lived during the 1930s and 1940s. While observing one of his patients, Cayce supposedly discovered that the man had been an Atlantean in a previous life. He asked the patient where Atlantis was located, and the man replied that it was near Bimini.

About thirty years later, Cayce’s prediction was linked to the appearance of some pillars north of Bimini. Many divers descended on the site, attempting to find remnants of the Lost Civilization. One group even claimed to have entered a temple under the water before being driven off by a storm that completely buried the location, and their video camera that they took with them was rendered useless because of the “force-field” surrounding the temple. Skeptics note that these conditions make it conveniently impossible to ever find the alleged site again, but many people still flock to Bimini in search of Atlantis today. According to an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, geological surveys of the beachrock in the area proved that the terrain was formed after Atlantis was said to have existed, that there were no signs any human activity in the beachrock, and that the “temple pillars” were actually barrels of Portland cement dropped there in the early part of the 19th century (Shinn 38).

A much more realistic (but also unsubstantiated) theory on the island's location places it off of the coast of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Robert Sarmast is an Iranian-American mythologist who recently published a book listing his findings from topographic research he conducted on the sea floor in the area using sonar technology. His results, according to his report, match Plato’s descriptions of Atlantis with 95% accuracy (Smith A6). However, he has absolutely no empirical evidence other than his sonar mappings to back this conclusion, which could just be describing a group of rocks arranged coincidentally underwater.

The most widely accepted idea is that the myth of Atlantis could be a misinterpreted account of the ancient Minoan city located at Thera, the island known today as Santorini. Thera is located north of Crete in the Aegean Sea. Volcanic eruptions destroyed the island of Thera in 1470 B.C. This island was situated around a volcano in its center, which exploded suddenly in an earth-shaking eruption. The sea levels rose and sank the island, leaving a bay now where a mountain peak once existed. The Minoan civilization was very prosperous and advanced for its time but met its downfall after it was destroyed by this and other natural disasters. It seems that this culture was very similar to our mythic Atlantis, so many people readily associate Thera and the fabled Lost Continent.

For many years scholars have regarded this theory as the most plausible of all the theories about the location of Atlantis. One fault in this theory is that Atlantis was said by Plato to be located in the Atlantic Ocean, but Thera is in the Aegean Sea. Also, Thera’s destruction did not happen nine thousand years before Plato, but only around nine hundred. Thus, the Thera Theory cannot be explained scientifically, but remains more of a historical deduction or inference.

There is another theory that Atlantis actually could be located in the Strait of Gibraltar as Plato had written. Research conducted by French geologist and prehistorian Jacques Collina-Girard suggests that this may be true. According to Collina-Girard, Atlantis sank along with six other islands at the end of the last ice age, about eleven thousand years ago. It is possible that the story of these sinking islands evolved into a legend that finally reached Plato's waiting ears nine thousand years later. Today, these islands are shoals located between the coasts of Spain and Morocco.

Close to these sunken islands, another discovery has been made by the German scientist and historian, Dr. Rainer Kühne. Satellite images appear to show rectangular formations surrounded by concentric circles that match Plato’s description of the continent. One of the rectangular formations could be the silver temple dedicated to Poseidon depicted in Plato's Timaeus and Critias. The pictures are of a place called Marisma de Hinojos, a muddy marshland off the coast of Cadiz, Spain. Kühne and his associates have tried to use science as a tool to prove that Atlantis is located in the Strait of Gibraltar. This theory appears to match nicely with the legend because the dates and the location are almost exact to Plato’s account. This theory has a more scientific foundation than the others, but it still does not prove the existence of Atlantis in that location, or anywhere, conclusively.

So why exactly are we so fascinated with the myth of Atlantis? Perhaps it is our desire to explore the unexplored, the thrill of discovering new territory, that drives people to continue searching. It could also be the desire to discover a civilization that predated those in Mesopotamia and China, to learn about this ancient society that came before us and in turn learn more about ourselves as human beings. Or perhaps we're inspired by the lesson taught to the Atlanteans, the proverbial moral of the story, and are fascinated to learn from a previous generation's mistakes as we pursue greatness in our own mighty nation of the United States.

To date, none of the Atlantis theories hold water scientifically. They are fascinating, to be sure, and the results of some research indicate possibility that may prove fruitful in years to come. Unfortunately, there has not been much corroborative effort to apply the scientific method to the studies of this myth, and it's difficult to say for certain how much of the reports is credible. It seems that these theories can only offer us educated guesses about Atlantis. In the absence of scientific proof of the contrary, the myth of Atlantis will stay forever in the realm of pseudoscience. There is no substantial evidence to prove that Atlantis ever existed, only worthless speculation. Scholars the world over have been trying to find scientific and historical clues that would enable them to rescue Atlantis from the sea of legend, but in the case of this story, we may never be able to conclusively tell fact from fiction.

Annotated Bibliography

Atlantis.” Wikipedia. 11 January 2005. 16 January 2005


This is an extremely comprehensive article on the subject of Atlantis, discussing many ancient references to the mythical city, as well as modern theories and possible locations. It also discusses the role of Atlantis in contemporary pop culture and compares it with other legendary lost civilizations around the world.

Wikipedia is a free, open encyclopedia edited by its readers. Though moderation of the articles is loose, Wikipedia regulars patrol articles daily and check for accuracy across the site. Vandalism of the system is kept to a minimum, and it generally proves itself to be a trustworthy academic source. Its wealth of knowledge is simply too vast to overlook.

The extensive collection of references cited at the end of this article, as well as its cohesiveness, professionalism, and authoritative, balanced tone lend credibility to its content. The fact that this article was updated less than a week ago further emphasizes that it contains recent information and is consistently checked for accuracy.

Joil, Genry. Theories About Atlantis. Lost Civilizations. 16 January 2005.


This is a lengthy discussion of many theories behind the Lost Continent of Atlantis. Many possibilities are mentioned without bias and presented in an objective fashion. References to ancient writings and obscure ancient peoples abound, seeming to give clout to the article's content.

There is no information available on the author or his credentials. He appears to be a history enthusiast, as well as a fan of mythology and conspiracy theories. Though his article seems intelligent and well thought-out, there is no actual reason to attribute any credibility to Mr. Joil. This page cites no external resources.

Keyes, Bradley. Atlantis: Vital Statistics. The Active Mind. 24 September 1996.

16 January 2005.


This web page proved to be an extremely helpful resource, as it compiles all the information contained in Plato's Dialogues into a simple chart format with a list of important figures and statistics. Mathematical unit conversions have been included to present distances in both the metric system and the English system, saving readers the trouble of calculating “stades,” the unit of measurement that Plato used in the ancient times.

No information was available on the author of this page, but he appears to be another amateur enthusiast. His web site also includes “information” on UFOs, cryptozoology, and missing buried treasure. The web site has not been updated in many years. There is no explicit reason to trust Mr. Keyes, except for the fact that his information about Atlantis appears to be very well-written and in agreement with information available elsewhere.

Lorenzi, Rossella. “Lost City of Atlantis Found in Spain?” Discovery News

08 June 2004.

This is a recent report of discoveries relating to a possible Atlantis location in the Strait of Gibraltar. Ms. Lorenzi describes Dr. Kühne's satellite imagery findings, carefully mentioning that this report has not yet been peer-reviewed. She also quotes archaeologist Tony Wilkinson from Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom.

Rossella Lorenzi is a science reporter who writes on a variety of subjects. She seems well-informed and writes for reputable journals, such as Discovery News, where this article was published. The article is professional, new, and informative.

Lovgren, Stefan. “Atlantis 'Evidence' Found in Spain and Ireland.”

National Geographic 19 August 2004.

This article examines several possible Atlantis locations, most notably Ireland. Several researchers are interviewed personally, and the author seems to conclude that the island was probably a work of fiction made up by Plato. This is not an opinion piece, but is simply an analysis of the responses of a number of experts in the field.

Stefan Lovgren is an experienced writer for National Geographic magazine and adheres to the publication's standards of journalistic integrity and research. This is a trustworthy article from a sure source.

Mapping the Mythical, Third Edition.” Editorial. Boston Globe

21 October 2003: A18.

This is a well-researched editorial with a heavy dose of personal opinion. The author assumes a rather snarky tone toward proponents of some of the more bizarre Atlantis theories. Most of his criticism is directed toward Robert Sarmast and the Bimini Theory. Still, the author raises some good points regarding the state of Atlantis research and the fact that skepticism is essential in science.

The editorial is unsigned, but the Boston Globe is a well-known and respected newspaper around the globe.
Plato. Critias. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. E-Text: Project Gutenberg, 1998.

Part One of the original work from which the entire Atlantis story is derived. No one knows if the story contains any truth or if it is entirely fictional. This English translation is available online in its entirety, and is listed as a public domain piece of literature.

Plato. Timaeus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. E-Text: Project Gutenberg, 1998.

Part Two of the original work from which the entire Atlantis story is derived. No one knows if the story contains any truth or if it is entirely fictional. This English translation is available online in its entirety, and is listed as a public domain piece of literature.

Search For 'Lost' Atlantis Settles on Strait of Gibraltar.” The Record

[Bergen County, NJ] 4 January 2002.

This report details the relatively recent research published by Jacques Collina-Girard suggesting Atlantis is located in the Strait of Gibraltar. It also compares the flood that supposedly destroyed the city to the great flood stories told in other cultures, such as that of Noah in the Bible.

Little information is known about The Record, a local newspaper in New Jersey, or the anonymous author of this article, but it is professionally written and appears to be credible.

Shinn, Eugene A. “A Geologist's Adventures with Bimini Beachrock and Atlantis

True Believers.” The Skeptical Inquirer 28.1 (2004): 38.

This article attempts to debunk the Bimini Theory by explaining away supposed “evidence” to the existence of Atlantis in that area. It is not written with journalistic objectivity, however, and appears biased. The fact that it was published in Skeptical Inquirer is reason enough for skepticism, as we are forced to wonder if the author was really as fair as possible.

Smith, Helena. “Researcher Says He's Found Sunken Site of Atlantis, Third

Edition.” Boston Globe 11 October 2003: A6.

This article details Robert Sarmast's supposed discovery of Atlantis off the coast of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. The article appears fair and balanced, informative, and was published in the reputable Boston Globe newspaper. There is no reason to doubt the credibility of the author or the article.

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