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This is the fourth version of my paper. The basic distinction of this version from the previous one, written over a year ago, consists in that I attempted to make the paleogeographic aspect of the hypothesis more profoundly elaborated.
The first version was sent as a brochure "Returning to the Enigma of Plato's Atlantis" to Ancient History Departments of some Universities and to Geographical Societies of a number of countries in June 1995. The magazine version of it came out in the May 1996 issue of "Vokrug Sveta" ("Around the World", Magazine of Travels, Adventures and SF) - a kind of Russian "National Geographic". The second one was published in some newsgroups and mailing lists in February - March 1996. In the third version published in the Internet in May-June of the same year, I did my best to provide answers to most of the questions I was asked after the previous publications.
As this text offered to your attention has been amended and added to many times, and some sections were revised at different times, it may be somewhat eclectic. Some prolixity of the introduction in this version, as well as in the previous ones, and the slightly simplified style of setting forth some theses, are due to the fact that the paper was originally meant not only for experts on the issue, but also for those who are not familiar in detail with a whole range of issues connected with the subject.
The two translations of Plato's dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias" used are the Thomas Taylor translation first published in 1804 and considered to be classic (16) and the Desmond Lee translation, first published in 1965 ("Timaeus") and in 1971 ("Critias") (19).
I also had parallel texts of the dialogues in ancient Greek and in Latin (20).
Where not specified, Desmond Lee's translation of Plato is quoted, since his language is more up-to-date.
After quotations in round brackets, it is indicated where in Plato's text the passage quoted belongs according to the traditionally accepted pagination.
The ancient Greek words and phrases are transcribed with Latin letters for reasons of fonts available and the ASCII-codes format.
The bold type in the quotations and the explanations in square brackets are mine.
I would like to express my gratitude to:
M.A. Garntsev, Ph. D., Associate Professor, Department of the History of Foreign Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy, Moscow State University, for consultations on the ancient Greek texts;
M.G. Grosswald, D.Sc. (Geography), Professor of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, for assistance in mastering the paleoglaciological and paleogeographical material;
Y.M. Kononov of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, for the numerous discussions in the course of which he made some valuable suggestions;
E.Y. Koudriavtseva for help with translating the paper into English;
V.E. Schitz for assistance in my work.
Everyone will have heard at one time or another the name of Atlantis mentioned, we can come across it in various contexts. Almost any encyclopaedia is sure to have an article on Atlantis, which usually reads something like this: "Atlantis - according to an ancient Greek myth recorded by Plato, there had once existed a vast island in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Gibraltar, with fertile soil and densely populated, which sank to the bottom of the sea because of an earthquake. Questions of whether Atlantis has ever existed, and if so, why it vanished, today continue to arouse as much controversy among scientists as ever."
Plato speaks of Atlantis in two works - dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias". Dialogue was a genre widely popular in Ancient Greece, in which information or ideas are not narrated by the author himself, but are presented to the reader by two or more interlocutors addressing each other. Such a genre is convenient for presenting differing views on the same subject and, besides, makes it possible to render the experience cited in support of the deliberations, concrete to the utmost. Therefore, the genre of the ancient Greek dialogues should not be seen merely as short-hand records of actual conversations.
In both dialogues the story of Atlantis is told by a person whose name is Critias, who, according to one of the existing viewpoints, was Plato's maternal great grandfather (13). He narrates word for word to Socrates, Timaeus and Hermocrates, staying at his home, the conversation between Solon and an Egyptian priest. In "Timaeus" the issue of Atlantis is raised along with many others, while the unfinished "Critias", in all probability, was to be exclusively devoted to it. Critias also explains how he himself came to hear the story. He heard it from his grandfather whose name was also Critias, who, in turn, had heard it from Solon himself, who had been a close friend of his father, Dropides.
In his conversation with Solon, the priest, referring to the sacred records, speaks of a powerful country, Atlantis, lying outside the Pillars of Hercules, of the beginning of a war between Atlanteans and the citizens of Athens and of a catastrophe which destroyed both, and resulted in Atlantis sinking to the bottom "in a single dreadful day and night".
The priest also says how many years have elapsed since - nine thousand years. Besides, "Critias" contains the myth of the origin of the rulers of Atlantis, the description of its geography, architecture and of its social life, all of which suggests the idea of imagination having been used to make up for the lack of information.
There are several viewpoints on when the dialogues actually took place; similarly, debate continues on correlating the participants in the dialogues, with the historical personalities known from other sources. A question is even raised as to whether it is possible that Plato may have depicted himself as Critias's fourth guest, who did not show up for the conversation because of illness (27). But since different answers to these questions can only change the date of the dialogues by about 20 years at the most, it can be assumed that the dialogues took place around the year 425 B.C., as one of the most widespread viewpoints holds (though Plato himself must only have been about 2 years old at the time). Critias-grandson, Plato's great grandfather, was probably about 80 at the time, and he had heard the story about 70 years before (i.e. around the year 495 B.C.), from Critias-grandfather, when the latter was about 90. Since Critias-grandfather had heard it from Solon himself, who belonged to the same generation as his father, it can be reasonably assumed that the conversation between Solon and the Egyptian priest took place around 600-575 B.C. Thus, it follows that, according to Plato, Atlantis vanished in the middle of the 10th millennium B.C.
Hardly anyone in the world knows exactly how many books have been written about Atlantis by the proponents and opponents of the idea that it existed once in the past. Those who have attempted to count them, come up with widely diverging, albeit invariably four-digit numbers. I, for one, have seen bibliographies containing over 500 titles. No doubt, the topic of Atlantis could claim its place among he best-selling topics of the current century.
The special attention that Plato's narration about Atlantis gets can be accounted for by the fact that the country described in "Timaeus" and "Critias" does not fit in with our present-day ideas of the history of humanity, and the date of its vanishing, as recorded by Plato, goes back to unprecedentedly early times. If we treat this narration as trustworthy, a new and more comprehensive model of the history of mankind's development is essential.
The idea seems attractive to many, in view of the numerous blank spots and contradictions in the existing concept of the history of humanity (for instance, such as the vast span of time between the emergence of an anatomically modern Homo Sapiens and the development of the first civilizations, the dating of which, by the way, is receding into the past, coming ever closer to the time when Atlantis existed according to the dialogues, as new archaeological data emerge), all the more so, that the text which could bring about a revision of the existing model is authored by Plato, who stands with Socrates and Aristotle as one of the shapers of the whole intellectual tradition of the West.
At the same time, most scholars believe that Plato's narrative about Atlantis stands by itself, that it is not directly corroborated or indirectly echoed by anything, and in itself does not give sufficient grounds for such a revision. The mention of Atlantis by the ancient historian Diodor of Sicily in his "Historical Library" is not considered by most scholars to constitute a reliable cross-reference, since it was made three centuries after Plato, whose works Diodor must have been familiar with.
Regrettably, most of the Atlantis enthusiasts are swayed by emotions, and this lures them away from the commitment to scientific correctness. Many researchers into the issue have been engaged in searching for, and making a collection of, similarities in the material culture and languages of the peoples of the Old and the New Worlds, but their finds make it possible to pose some questions rather than give well-substantiated answers to them. The more ardent enthusiasts even claim that they have found in the epos of many peoples of the world what they call "direct indications" of the Atlantean descent of these peoples. Deluded by wishful thinking, they often fall prey to perverted logic: "If the "Belt of Pyramids" exists, it follows that Atlantis also existed in reality."
If we add to the above-listed that the topic of Atlantis has long been attracting undiminishing interest of mystics and occultists of all stripes, UFOlogists and other people like that, who would like to indulge in their fantasies of the "Mystical Crystals of Atlanteans" or of the secret storage places of Atlanteans' bodies in Tibet, it becomes clear why the problem has virtually become something of a scientific curiosity and is only suitable for another film about the adventures of Doctor Indiana Jones. This is the reason why even if scientific data coming to light as time goes by, are interpreted in the context of Atlantis, as a rule, it is done in a biased way and has little in common with a balanced scientific approach.
Without claiming to present an exhaustive survey of the existing viewpoints on the issue, I would like to list only the ones I believe to be the most widespread.
Some believe that Atlantis is Plato's invention from beginning to end, which he needed to expound his ideas of an ideal state.
Others, who do not consider Plato's narration to be an invention, persevere in trying to interpret it in a way which would make it possible to link it with the already explored archaeological sites. Thus, some of them contend that none other than the island of Crete is Plato's Atlantis, claiming also that Greeks used the name of the Pillars of Hercules, mentioned by Plato, not for what is now called the Strait of Gibraltar, but for some rocks which were situated on the way from Athens to Crete. Given such an interpretation, it becomes imperative for them to bring the date of the vanishing of Atlantis given by Plato, in line with the time of the decline of the Minoan civilization, established by archaeologists, and link it to the explosion of Thera/Santorin. Hence, rise is given to the hypothesis that the span of time between the vanishing of Atlantis and the conversation between Solon and the priest is actually 10 times shorter, and that the mistake was made either when Egyptian priests were copying the sacred records (it is suggested that the characters denoting 100 and 1000 in the Egyptian system of writing are alike) or because Plato himself, like all his contemporaries, had little sense of time and dating. The same thesis of a mistake of multiplication by ten is used by the proponents of the Cretan Atlantis as regards the dimensions of the island, for the numbers Plato gives in "Critias" do not quite fit in with their theory, to put it mildly. Similar arguments are used to substantiate a variety of hypotheses, including some according to which Atlantis was situated not even in the Mediterranean Sea, but in the Sea of Marmara or the Black Sea.
Yet others, fervently believing in the truthfulness of the information provided by Plato, rush to search for Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean. They have already announced, at different times, that the Azore, Canary and Bahama Islands, as well as some other more or less suitable ones, are the remains of Plato's sunken island. They also like to juggle with suggestions of mistakes in the numerals as regards the dimensions of Atlantis.
Let us endeavour to analyse once again Plato's narration, comparing its basic elements and their interpretations with some fairly credible facts, and try to formulate one more hypothesis, which, in my opinion, hardly has more weak points, vulnerable to criticism, than the already existing ones.
First of all, it is highly doubtful that Plato would have had to invent Atlantis to expound his ideas of an ideal state system, - indeed, he had previously expounded them more than once in his other works, without any geographical hoaxes.
Secondly, in "Timaeus" itself there already exists - and is actively used by Plato - an object only too suitable for setting forth utopian concepts - the pre-historic Athens, so the supposition that Plato needed to invent specifically for the purpose a second, let alone such an exotic one as Atlantis, seems rather far-fetched.
Thirdly, it is not clear how the assumption that under the name of Atlantis Plato depicted an ideal state, correlates with the fact that in "Critias" none other than Plato himself had already exposed the "degeneration" and decline that preceded the vanishing of Atlantis.
And fourthly, the explanation of how the information of Atlantis came to Plato's notice, does not seem to contain logical contradictions, which in itself enhances its credibility. It also sounds convincing that events of such ancient history are narrated to Solon by none other than an Egyptian priest, and the way he explains why Greeks had lost their historical memory.
"You are all [Greeks] young in mind," came the reply: "you have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge hoary with age. And the reason is this. There have been and will be many different calamities to destroy mankind, the greatest of them by fire and water, lesser ones by countless other means...Of course, the archaeological data on which modern ideas of the past of humanity are based, is vast. But the history of Earth has seen a lot of natural cataclysms of enormous proportions, and we cannot completely discard the possibility that the historical memory of humanity has indeed been curtailed, due to the destruction of material evidence by a catastrophe more violent than the ones we know of in the so-called "historical time". (Just imagine what the picture of life on Earth in the 19th century would have looked like a thousand years later, if both Europe and North America had been erased from the face of Earth by some catastrophe.)
But in our temples we have preserved from earliest times a written record of any great or splendid achievement or notable event which has come to our ears whether it occurred in your part of the world or here or anywhere else; whereas with you and others, writing and the other necessities of civilisation have only just been developed when the periodic scourge of the deluge descends, and spares none but the unlettered and uncultured, so that you have to begin again like children, in complete ignorance of what happened in our part of the world or in yours in early times...
You remember only one deluge, though there have been many, and you do not know that the finest and best race of men that ever existed lived in your country; you and your fellow citizens are descended from the few survivors that remained, but you know nothing about it because so many succeeding generations left no record in writing". (Tim. 22d-23c)
In my opinion, the most serious argument in favour of the assumption that Atlantis had not been invented by Plato, is that the time when it vanished, as indicated by Plato, and the circumstances of its vanishing described by him (the sinking into the deep of the sea) coincide with the data which, no doubt, were inaccessible to Plato, on the time of the end of the last Ice Age and a substantial rise of the level of the World Ocean that accompanied it.
Assertions that Plato had a vague idea of time and chronology do not seem well-substantiated. As can be seen from his works, Plato was fairly mathematically-minded, since, apparently, he was under the influence of the Pythagorean school. Besides, there is such a natural approximate measure for assessing large spans of time as a generation, and it does not seem likely that Plato did not perceive the distinction between a period covering the lifespans of several tens of generations and that encompassing several hundreds of generations. (Hardly anyone would assert that Plato had a vague idea of the distinction between tens and hundreds.)
Any assertion that Solon may have made a mistake in reading the Egyptian hieroglyphs he did not know sufficiently well, should be discarded as Plato explicitly says that Solon did not read the sacred records himself, but was told of their contents by the priest.
Another reason for the mistake of multiplication by 10 might have been the misunderstanding by Solon of the numerals in the Egyptian priest's story, which is highly improbable, since, firstly, there are several numerals in the story, and, secondly, the spans of time which these numerals describe are interrelated in the priest's story.
"Solon was astonished at what he heard and eagerly begged the priests to describe to him in detail the doings of these citizens of the past. "I will gladly do so, Solon," replied the priest, "both for your sake and your city's, but chiefly in gratitude to the Goddess to whom it has fallen to bring up and educate both your country and ours - yours first, when she took over your seed from Earth and Hephaestus, ours a thousand years later. The age of our institutions is given in our sacred records as eight thousand years, and the citizens whose laws and whose finest achievement I will now briefly describe to you therefore lived nine thousand years ago; we will go through their history in detail later on at leisure, when we can consult the records." (Tim. 23d-24a)However, if we do assume that Solon misunderstood the priest, it would be difficult to imagine an Egyptian priest who, around the year 600 B.C. gives the age of civilisation in the Nile Valley as 800 years. And it would be an outright impossibility to assume that sacred records could have contained such nonsense, and that "nine thousand years" only appeared in the story in the process of copying, as a result of an accidental substitution of the character denoting thousands for another one, denoting hundreds.
Yet another argument against the alleged mistake of multiplication by ten is the fact that none of the sources dealing with the second millennium B.C., contains any reference to an Atlantis less ancient than the one described by Plato in his narrative about Atlantis, and consequently, either his narrative, after all, is a hoax, or it is really a case of information lost and accidentally retrieved - information going back to a much earlier period.
In "Critias" it is said that the capital city of Atlanteans is surrounded by a plain 2,000 x 3,000 stades (approximately 370 x 550 km). As we have already said, proponents of various hypotheses requiring some adjustment of Plato's data to suit the existing convenient sites, are fond of using the assertion of a numerical mistake consisting in the multiplication of numerals by ten, not only as regards the time, but also the dimensions of the plain. That is why everything we said above about such a method of interpreting Plato being unable to stand up to criticism from the viewpoint of logic, is applicable to these figures, too.
And in general, if it is suggested that almost all the numerical data are erroneous and should be revised, then, in my opinion, the whole thing becomes somewhat absurd: would it not be easier to cross out Plato's narrative of Atlantis and write their own instead, the parameters of which would be acceptable for them, than attempt to logically substantiate the ultimate dotage ascribed to Plato.
There is yet another argument testifying to the fact that there had never been any mistake of multiplication by ten as regards the dimensions. Plato said that Atlantis was "larger than Asia and Libya combined" (Tim. 24e). Even if we presume that Asia here stands for what is now called the Near East - just a small part of the Asian continent, and Libya - for a small part of North Africa, it is difficult to believe that Plato would describe a territory several dozens kilometres wide, as larger in size than the two of them.
It would also seem expedient now to dot all the i's and cross all the t's concerning what Plato calls the Pillars of Hercules. Let us read the passage on the parts of territory allotted to Poseidon's sons:
"His twin, to whom was allocated the furthest part of the island towards the Pillars of Heracles and facing the district now called Gadira, was called in Greek Eumelus but in his own language Gadirus..." (Critias. 114b)In Plato's time, ancient Greeks used the name of Gadirus for the city which was situated where modern Cadiz stands now, on the Atlantic coast of the Pyrenean Peninsula, not far from Gibraltar.
Diodor of Sicily in his "Historical Library" writes about Phoenicians as follows:
"...started going beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the sea called the Ocean. And shortly built a city called Gadirus on the peninsula in Europe, close to the strait situated at the Pillars..." (6)We can only imagine how much the proponents of the Cretan hypothesis must want to adjust Plato's narrative to that hypothesis, to find on the way from Athens to Crete some rocks which allegedly were called the Pillars of Hercules.
Had such rocks really existed, and had Crete or Santorin really been Atlantis, then for the Egyptian priest its inhabitants would have been those who lived "inside the Pillars", while the inhabitants of Athens would have been those who lived "outside the Pillars".
If we accept as trustworthy Plato's data concerning the time when Atlantis existed, and its dimensions, and if we resist the temptation of placing this enigmatic land somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, a question arises of where in the Atlantic it was situated and where it is possible to find some evidence of its existence there in the past.
Modern geology has a wealth of data on the geological structure of the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean. All of it, with the exception of the parts of the shelf which are the margins of the continental platforms, is constituted by the oceanic crust. This fully agrees with the notions of the process of the formation of the Atlantic Ocean which exist within the framework of plate tectonics hypothesis, which holds that the continental plates drifted apart from the Mid-Atlantic rift, which was subsequently filled by the magma, which constitutes the oceanic crust (15). The map of the Atlantic Ocean bears it out graphically that the outlines of all the continental platforms facing the ocean, ideally fit in with the line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, connected with the earth-crust rift, from which the continents "are sliding apart"; Africa, South and North Americas, Greenland, Scandinavia and Europe make up a perfectly fitting mosaic, in which there simply is no room for an allegedly lost fragment, particularly of such dimensions as Plato described (See map of the Atlantic Ocean). Besides, today there are no objective data that could give grounds for raising the question that there may have been a subsidence of the earth-crust in the Atlantic Ocean commensurate in scale with the sinking of a big island or a small continent, not only in the last dozens of thousands of years, but even in the whole time of the Atlantic Ocean' s existence, which amounts to many dozens of millions of years.
On the other hand, as has already been mentioned, the time when Atlantis vanished, as given by Plato, precisely coincides with the end of the last Ice Age (I would like to remind the readers that Plato speaks of the 10th millennium B.C.). Meanwhile, the changes of the ice sheets volume are closely connected with the so-called glacio-eustatic changes of the sea level, and it is known that during the last glaciation the sea level was considerably lower than at present because a great amount of water was bound up in glaciers.
There are various methods making it possible to come to conclusions about the glacio-eustatic fluctuations in the sea level during the last glaciation, but there is no uniform, commonly recognised notion of the magnitude and the dynamics of these processes. According to the estimates of most researchers, during the maximum of the last glaciation (18-16 thousand years ago) the sea level was 100-170 metres lower than at present:
Due to problems of encoding and fonts, the titles of the Russian sources are given in English translation and marked with an asterisk (*).
|Method of estimation used||Differential of the sea level, m||Source|
|Geomorphological data on the ancient coastal features||
||Curray, J.R. 1964. Transgressions and regressions. Papers in Marine Geology. N.Y.: Macmillan. 173-203.|
||Bloom, A.L. 1971. Glacial-eustatic and isostatic controls of sea level since the last glaciation. The Late Cenozoic Glacial Ages. New Haven, L.: Yale Univ. Press. 355-380.|
||Flint, R.F. 1971. Glacial and Quaternary Geology. N.Y.: Wiley.|
||*Kaplin, P.A. 1973. Modern History of World Ocean Coasts. Moscow: MGU Publishers.|
||*Sheppard, F.P. 1976. Submarine Geology. Translated from English, 2d ed. Leningrad: Nedra Publishers.|
||*Myslivetz, V.I., Kalinina, L.I., Solovyova, G.D. 1976. Experience of calculating fluctuations of the sea level in Pleistocene. Paleohydrology issues. Moscow: Nauka Publishers. 102-112.|
||Carter et al., 1986.|
|Paleo-glaciological data on the amount of the glaciation having an eustatic impact||
||CLIMAP, Project Members. 1976. The surface of the ice age Earth. Science 4232: 1131-1137.|
||*Souyetova, I.A. 1982. Area and volume of the ancient ice sheets of Earth in the Quaternary period. Quaternary Geographical Research. Moscow: MGU Publishers. 22-33.|
||Fairbridge, R.W. 1980. Holocene sea-level oscillations. Striae 1-4: 23-60.|
||The Last Great Ice Sheets. Ed by Denton, G.H., Hughes, T.J. 1981. N.Y.: Wiley.|
||*Bylinsky, E.N. 1985. On Pleistocene global glacio-eustatic effects on the Earth platform areas. Geomorphology 1: 22-36.|
|Isotope-oxigen data on the volume of glaciation derived from seabed sediments||
||Shackleton, N.J., Opdyke, H.D. 1973. Oxygen isotope and palaeomagnetic stratigraphy of equatorial Pacific coreV28-238: Oxygen isotope temperatures and ice volumes. Quatern. Res. 1: 39-55.|
||Schoell, Rrisch, 1976.|
||Cronin, T.M. 1983. Rapid sea level and climatic change: evidence from continental and island margins. Quatern. Sci. Rev. 3: 177-214.|
||*Calculated by A.O. Selivanov on the basis of S.D. Nikolayev's method (1986)|
||Chappell, J., Shackleton, N.J. 1986. Oxygen isotopes and sea level. Nature 324: 137-140.|
|Calculation on the basis of gravitation anomalies||
||*Tarakanov, Yu. A., Grosswald, M.G., Kambarov, N. Sh. et al. 1987. New data on the correlation between the figure of the Earth and ancient glaciations. USSR Academy of Sciences Papers. Vol. 295, No.5: 1084-1089.|
||Lambeck, K. 1990. Late Pleistocene, Holocene and present sea levels: constraints on future change. Palaeogeogr., Palaeoclimatol., Palaeoecol. 2-3: 205-217.|
|Calculation on the basis of isostatic effect||
||Morner, N.A. 1981. Eustasy, paleoglaciation and paleoclimatology. Geol. Rundschau. 2: 691-702.|
It is obvious that from among the data used for the above-listed reconstructions, the most direct ones are the data on the fluctuations of the sea level obtained by dating the ancient coastal features, but even these are inaccurate and contradictory (22), which can be put down to at least three factors:
- second, the imprecision of the radio-carbon dating technique itself, the error of which, as some data suggest, can amount to 20% of the indication for the period we are talking about;
- third, the impossibility of reliably taking into account the changes of the absolute altitude of the Earth surface, caused by tectonic, glacio- and hydro-isostatic uplift or subsidence of the earth crust, as well as the changes of the figure of the Earth (this problem is also topical for relatively stable platform areas, the data from which are mainly used for datings).
Unfortunately, most geographical maps accessible to the public, as a rule, have neither the 100-metre nor the 150-metre isodepth lines. The 200-metre isodepth line on the map of the Atlantic Ocean gives only a very approximate idea of how the coastline must have looked at the time of the last glaciation. Even though an obviously lower sea level is taken, it can be seen that in the area of the present Azores and Canaries, which are most often pointed to as the remains of the sunken Atlantis, there had been no sizeable land. It can also be seen that in the west of Europe, where now the North Sea and the Celtic Shelf are situated, to the south of the British Isles, during the last glaciation, at the time when the sea level was lower, there had existed a vast area of land (See map of Northern Atlantic).
Besides, at the time when the Scandinavian ice sheet existed, the earth crust beneath it was isostatically depressed under the weight of its mass, while some distance away from it, the crust was uplifted as a result of the so-called isostatic balancing. It is probable that the area of the Celtic Shelf was situated precisely in this uplifted area, so that the relative sea level there was even lower than the mean level by the value of this isostatic uplifting.
Besides the glacio-eustatic fluctuations of the mean sea level, the data on which, as we can see, cannot be considered exhaustive, and the glacio-isostatic effects, neither the chronological nor the quantitative parametres of which have been studied sufficiently well, the relative sea level in the area which is of interest to us may have also been affected by such a factor, which is difficult to assess, as the geoidal changes of the relative sea level, i.e. the changes caused the changing figure of the Earth, which may take place for various reasons. The magnitude of these geoidal changes in some areas, according to some estimates, during late Pleistocene could amount to 50-100 m (23, 226).
Since there are no direct data on the relative sea level in the area of the Celtic Shelf for the period that is of interest to us, the question of the size of the land that existed there remains open and can be answered definitively only as a result of a thorough geomorphological exploration of the area. But, as we can see, there are reasons to believe that at the time which is of interest to us, the land that existed in the west of Europe could extend to the very edge of the continental platform, which means that the modern Celtic Shelf could well have been a plain precisely about two by three thousand stades.
But the Greek word nesos, used by Plato, quite unambiguously is translated as "island", and I have no reasons whatsoever to assume that once upon a time it could have had another meaning as well. In the same vein, the Latin word insula does not seem to allow other interpretations. So, is it possible to equate that area of land in the west of Europe with Plato's Atlantis? I believe, it is, and there are two possible explanations of why the word which means "island" is used for something that actually was not one:
1. What gives grounds for this assumption is what Critias says in the dialogue of the same title about the distortion of names due to their translation from language to language as the story was transmitted:
"Before I begin, a brief word of explanation, in case you are surprised at hearing foreigners so often referred to by Greek names. The reason is this. Solon intended to use the story in his own poem. And when, on inquiring about the significance of the names, he learned that the Egyptians had translated the originals into their own language, he went through the reverse process, and as he learned the meaning of a name wrote it down in Greek. My father had his manuscript, which is now in my possession, and I studied it often as a child. So if you hear names like those we use here, don't be surprised; I have given you the reason." (Critias. 113a-b)It would seem appropriate to assume that, in being retold and passed so many times over, and in being translated from language to language, and in attempts to grasp the information through the prism of geographic realities which had already changed, a reduction of such notions as "land/ territory/ country" - "island" might have taken place, all the more so that it is unknown if different words existed in the ancient Egyptian language for expressing the notions of "land" and "island"; moreover, there is no information whatsoever about the original (pre-Egyptian) language in which the information which later reached Plato was narrated.
After I have criticised unwarranted assumptions in the Mediterranean hypotheses, and assertions that mistakes had been made in the numerals, the readers may now reproach me for considerably stretching a point in interpreting Plato's narrative. That is why I would like to quote several passages, which, I believe, substantiate the legitimacy of my assumption, if in reading them we abstract ourselves from the word "island" (which I for convenience shall write in slash marks), focusing instead on the context in which it is used.
Of great interest is what Critias says after concluding the description of the capital city of Atlanteans:
"I have given you a pretty complete account of what was told me about the city and its original buildings; I must now try to recall the nature and organisation of the rest of the country. To begin with the region as a whole was said to be high above the level of the sea, from which it rose precipitously; the city was surrounded by a uniformly flat plain, which was in turn enclosed by mountains which came right down to the sea. The plain was rectangular in shape, measuring three thousand stades in length and at its midpoint two thousand stades in breadth from the coast. This whole area of the /island/ faced south, and was sheltered from the north winds." (Critias. 117e-118a)As we see, the description is rather contradictory. The thing is that in the Greek text, after Critias says that having described the city, he will proceed to the narration about the nature of the rest of the territory (tes d allas khoras os e phusis), he actually returns to the description of the city as the place (topos) situated high above the sea level, from which it rises precipitously, after which he contrasts it (de) with the flat plain surrounding the city. Such an interpretation of the logic of the passage is borne out by the use in the same passage of two words - khoras and topos, which semantically must refer to different notions, hence, it was only the city that was situated high above the sea level, but not the plain. And again there is no indication whatsoever of land surrounded by the sea on all sides. The only image evoked by this description is that of a city on a hill rising precipitously from the sea, and the flat plain surrounding it, enclosed on three sides by mountains. This description suits in every detail, the land that once existed in the west of Europe: the mountains are the present Ireland, Great Britain and, possibly, the north-western part of France; the plain itself, which now constitutes the Celtic Shelf to the south of the British Isles fits the dimensions specified by Plato, and the edge of the continental platform faces south-southwest. Not far from this edge, at about 48 d 16-29' N and 8 d 46-59' W, there is a remarkable underwater hill called the Little Sole Bank marked on sufficiently minute maps. The top of the hill is 57 metres (8) below the sea surface, while the average depth around it is 160-170 metres. The hill is located approximately in the middle of the greater length of the plain in question (See map of the Celtic Shelf).
Of course, the coastline of any island should form a closed circuit, and its length can be roughly estimated, as well as the width of the island. Plato's Critias, however, while giving in minute detail the dimensions of the plain adjoining the city, and giving the length of the canal encircling it, says nothing of the dimensions of the island as such, except that it was "larger than Asia and Libya combined". Many researchers into the Atlantis issue also complain that nothing is said about the width of the mountain belt which surrounded the plain on the side of the land.
Besides, it is not quite clear to what we owe the emergence of the stereotype, according to which Atlantis was situated "to the west" of Gibraltar, or "facing" it.
Thomas Taylor's translation reads:
"For at that time the Atlantic sea was navigable, and had an /island/ before that mouth which is called by you the Pillars of Hercules." (Tim. 24e)Desmond Lee in his translation uses the English word "opposite" to describe the location of Atlantis in relation to the strait:
"For in those days the Atlantic was navigable. There was an /island/ opposite the strait which you call (so you say) the Pillars of Heracles..."The Greek preposition pro used by Plato in this passage means only that the island was situated "before" the strait, i.e. outside the Mediterranean, which means that the logical extension of its meaning towards denoting "immediately beyond", "right before" or "facing" (which gave rise to the traditional "to the west of") - is nothing but the second-guessing zeal of Plato's translators.
Nowhere does Plato call Atlanteans "islanders" - as a rule, the only specific point he makes is to emphasise the same contrast - that they did not live on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea:
"We must first remind ourselves that in all nine thousand years have elapsed since the declaration of war between those who lived outside and all those who lived inside the Pillars of Heracles." (Critias. 108e)And this is how he describes the territories controlled by Atlanteans:
"They and their descendants for many generations governed their own territories and many other islands in the ocean and, as has already been said, also controlled the populations this side of the straits as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia." (Critias. 114c)Let us also note that nowhere does he speak of the territories controlled by Atlanteans in terms of areas, describing only the length of the coastline. In all probability, it is connected with the geographical outlook of the time, shaped by the fact that people travelled mainly by sea, and maybe also by the specific features of population distribution in conditions of the Ice Age.
Let us now once again return to the already quoted passage about the distribution of allocations between Poseidon's sons.
In Desmond Lee's translation:
"His twin, to whom was allocated the furthest part of the /island/ towards the Pillars of Heracles and facing the district now called Gadira, was called in Greek Eumelus but in his own language Gadirus..." (Critias. 114b)In Thomas Taylor's translation:
"But the twin son that was born immediately after Atlas, and who was allotted the extreme parts of the /island/, towards the pillars of Hercules, as far as to the region which at present from that place is called Gadiric..."Taylor's translation in this case is closer to the original, since the Greek epi to, like the Latin pars ad, almost always means "as far as to", "right up to", "bordering on". The reader will probably agree that but for the word "island" the description would accurately suit the district in the south of modern Portugal which is the part of Atlantic coast closest to Gibraltar (See map of Western Europe).
2. The narration of Atlantis in Plato's "Critias" begins with the myth of its origins (about Evenor and Leucippe, Poseidon and Cleito), which includes a description that baffles most of the translators and interpreters. Not only is it contradictory in itself, indeed, it contradicts most of the subsequent descriptions of Atlantis, which we have already discussed (as regards the dimensions of the plain and the size of the hill):
"At the centre of the island, near the sea, was a plain, said to be the most beautiful and fertile of all plains, and near the middle of this plain about fifty stades [9.65 km] inland a hill of no great size," (Critias. 113b)- Lee translates, and makes a footnote that by saying "at the centre of the island" Plato meant "midway along its greatest length".
Taylor translates the passage as follows:
"Towards the sea, but in the middle of the island, there was a plain..."In the Latin translation the word media is used here, which means "middle". In Plato's original the phrase kata de meson is used, which means "around the middle", "approximately in the middle", with the word mesos (meson is its case form) usually implying the middle of a linear segment, while for the notion of "centre" another word exists. Besides, a long island, whose length considerably exceeds its width, must have two longer sides, and if it were really the description of an island, then an indication should have been given, the middle of which side is meant. So, without a stretch, this description could only be understood as the middle of a certain segment of the coastline.
On the other hand, the myth may well go back to a much earlier time, before the maximum of the last glaciation, when the sea level had not yet gone down to its lowest mark, and this place became a hill on the coast of the sea, but was still an island proper (See map of the Little Sole Bank). Considering the situation from this viewpoint
- secondly, makes it possible to assume that in relation to Atlantis the word "island" is used, because the central part of the city, surrounded by a canal (water ring) and situated on the top of the hill which used to be an island, historically continued to be called "King's Island" or "Poseidon's Island". Hence, possibly, the use of the word "island" in relation to the whole city and country by all who transmitted the narration, including Plato.
It may seem that in justifying the legitimacy of questioning that what Plato persistently calls "an island" was actually one, we digressed too much into the realm of hypothetical assumptions, so let us turn now to the mention of Atlantis contained in the "Historical Library" by Diodor of Sicily. The opponents of the view that Plato's Atlantis really existed in the past, claim this mention cannot be seen as a reliable cross reference source because it was made three centuries after Plato, whose works Diodor, in all probability, was familiar with, but they prefer not to quote it, since its distinction from Plato's narration is all too obvious in its very structure (in particular, it does not contain any information about a war with the pre-historic Athens), in its geographical reference points and in the details of the myths quoted. By the same token, the enthusiasts of searching for Atlantis do like to quote verbatim passages from Diodor of Sicily because the recognition of some geographical details contained in Diodor's writings makes the substantiation of search for the remains of Atlantis not only on Crete or Santorin, but also on most of the islands they have their eye on, highly questionable.
Diodor of Sicily mentions Atlantis in passing as it were, but even the small passages containing at least some meagre indication of where it was situated, cast a serious doubt on the view that Plato's dialogues may have served as a source of inspiration and geographical information for Diodor. They also give us grounds to believe that he could not have been speaking of an island situated in the Mediterranean or "opposite" Gibraltar, but rather - of the outlying areas of the European continent along the whole Atlantic coast:
"...the Atlanteans, dwelling as they do in the regions on the edge of the ocean and inhabiting a fertile territory..." (5)
"Their first king was Uranus, and he gathered the human beings, who dwelt in scattered habitations, within the shelter of a walled city... and he also subdued the larger part of the inhabited earth, in particular the regions to the west and the north." (Ibid.)
"...the kingdom was divided among the sons of Uranus, the most renowned of whom were Atlas and Cronus. Of these sons Atlas received as his part the regions on the coast of the ocean... " (Ibid.)
Paleoclimatology today has a wide variety of methods, including paleobotanic ones, which make it possible to form a fairly clear idea of the climate during the last glaciation. Without describing in detail the distribution of climatic zones in the regions of Europe, I would like to note only that the temperature decreased with distance from the sea and with altitude above the sea level much more steeply than in the present conditions, i.e. the climate on the whole was much more continental (21, 34), and the zones with a moderate sea climate most suitable for habitation were located in the not-too-wide strip of land along the seacoasts. (The climatic conditions of all the other territories were so harsh, that they were not conducive to a settled way of life, which ruled out the very possibility of the development there of such forms of culture that we associate with civilisation. That is why the paleolithic settlements discovered by archaeologists, dating to the same period, in no way contradict this hypothesis.)
The climate of the territory in question for a number of reasons must have been extremely favourable.
Secondly, the plain was protected from northern winds and the cold influence of the ice sheet covering Scandinavia, exactly as in Plato's narrative, by the mountains, albeit not high, which encircled it.
Thirdly, during the last glaciation a warm current, now known as Gulf Stream - North Atlantic Drift and washing the shores of western and northern Europe, must have washed the shores of the territory in point.
For finding the answer to the question of where Atlantis was situated, the passage describing its whereabouts in relation to landmarks other than the Pillars of Hercules is of particular interest:
"...from it [Atlantis] travellers could in those days reach the other islands, and from them the whole opposite continent which surrounds what can truly be called the ocean." (Tim. 24e-25a)In Thomas Taylor's translation it reads as follows:
"...and afforded an easy passage to other neighbouring islands; as it was likewise easy to pass from those islands to all the continent which borders on this Atlantic sea. For the waters which are beheld within the mouth which we just now mentioned, have the form of a bay with a narrow entrance; but the mouth itself is a true sea. And lastly, the earth which surrounds it is in every respect truly denominated the continent."The argument about whether America is implied in this passage or not, can be veritably endless. But such a vision of the ocean surrounded by land, is strange, to say the least, for Plato of Greece or even for his imagination. Indeed, Greeks themselves did not know of America. So, this is a serious argument in support of the idea that Plato really possessed some information which had been lost long before his time, and that thanks to him, we have received uniquely ancient recorded information.
The phased character of sailing to the "opposite continent" in itself suggests the idea of the not-too-high level of navigation skills. The manner of action described would be appropriate for the Vikings' voyage to the island of Newfoundland, rather than for Columbus's search of a westward route to India. It is conventionally believed that both ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks we know of, sailed the seas on their ships, keeping to the coast and never losing sight of it. The style of ancient geographical descriptions that have reached us, testifies to that - "if you sail along such-and-such a coast in such-and-such a direction for so many days, you'll get to such-and-such a place": so does the fact that no evidence has been found that either Greeks or Egyptians were familiar with the principles of navigation used in sailing the open seas. In my opinion, there are no serious grounds for believing that matters were different as regards Plato's Atlanteans and ancient Athenians.
Taking into account these considerations, we can see that in "Timaeus" a very accurate description is given of the route from the west of Europe to the above-mentioned island of Newfoundland via Iceland, Greenland and smaller islands, which, given a lower sea level, must have been more numerous on the way.
Attempts to link the vanishing of Atlantis to the rise of the sea level during the end of the last glaciation have always met with serious objections. It is believed that the sea level had been rising fairly gradually and with different speed for several thousand years. Critics asserted that the flooding caused by this rising sea level could not correspond to the catastrophic character of what Plato described - the vanishing of Atlantis "in a single dreadful day and night".
1. The phrase "in a single dreadful day and night" can hardly be taken out of the context of the description of the catastrophe and interpreted as a precise description of the duration of the catastrophe. Generally, quoting it out of context as an argument in the debate on the nature of the catastrophe which brought about the vanishing of Atlantis is not quite legitimate, to say the least. What Plato says about the vanishing of Atlantis reads verbatim as follows:
"At a later time [after beginning of war between Atlanteans and Athenians] there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished..." (Tim. 25c-d)We see that besides the already quoted phrase about one day and one night, there is the mention of the earthquakes and floods accompanying the catastrophe in the plural, which in itself suggests a longer duration of the catastrophe process than just one day and night. Besides, if we take into account the character and style of the narration as a whole, the phrase "in a single dreadful day and night" can be viewed simply as a figure of speech, a poetic hyperbole.
2. Now let us try to clarify where the idea of the gradual character of the change of the sea level originates from. Certainly, the curves on the graphs of the sea level changes are fairly quiet, but looking at them, we should not forget to what extent they generalise the existing point measurements and datings, of which there are, as a rule, not more than three per every thousand years, so that if in the past there had been rather dramatic changes of the sea level, they simply cannot be reflected in such data.
It is also necessary to take into account that for the period under consideration the error of the radiocarbon dating method, even according to the most optimistic estimates, can amount to 400-500 years, as a result of which the process which lasted half a thousand years can be depicted as a momentary event, and vice versa.
Besides, it takes some time for the relief features characteristic of the coastal line (coastal terraces etc.) to emerge. It means that for periods when the sea level changed relatively fast, there should not exist distinctive ancient coastal features, since there simply was not enough time for them to take shape. Thus, the absolutely natural lack of data is bound to lead to a distorted understanding of the dynamics of the process, due to the filling of the gaps by averaging the data available for the periods of more fair changes.
3. The next question to be answered after we considered how it was possible that dramatic rises of the sea level in the past could have remained unnoticed by modern science, is the question if such rises were possible in the first place, and whether they actually took place in the past.
In 1988 the paleoclimatologist Hartmut Heinrich published the data obtained as a result of studying sedimens from the Dreizack seamounts in the eastern North Atlantic, which evidences that there had been at least six massive iceberg discharges into the ocean from the Laurentian ice sheet during the last Ice Age (10). Given that these events known as "Heinrich events" involved great armadas of icebergs, amounting to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cubic kilometres, they could not but cause a substantial rise of the sea level.
Climatologist Wallace Broecker, speaking of the possibility of massive iceberg discharges into the ocean having triggered global climate changes, points to the correlation between the "Heinrich events" and cycles of abrupt jumps in temperature for several thousand years during the last Ice Age (the so-called Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles), discovered by Bond (3). This correlation consists in that during the most intense phase of a package of several progressing colder cycles the ice armadas were launched and that each Heinrich event was followed by a prominent warming which initiated a new package of cycles. The last of such cold events was the so-called Younger Dryas, and its abrupt end ushered in the Holocene, a period of stable warm climate which has now lasted for about 11,500 calendar years (10,000 14C-years).
At present there exist many hypotheses on the causes of the beginning and the end of Ice Ages and glaciations; various factors are suggested as possible causes, a survey of which is not seen as one of the tasks of this paper. There is no ultimate clarity on the issue so far, although in analysing the graphs of the changes of temperatures for various regions it can be seen that the warming of the climate that marked the end of the last glaciation was more pronounced, abrupt and stable than all the previous ones.
In 1995 a group of researchers from University of Copenhagen published the interpretation of dated Central Greenland ice core isotope profile as a climatic temperature record spanning the last 113,000 years (11). It was noted that the latter temperature minimum (11,500 years ago) ended with an extremely abrupt 20 deg C warming within a century, while from 10,000 to 8,000 years BP, during the post-glacial climatic optimum, the temperatures were up to 3-4 deg C higher than now.
This dramatic rise in temperatures can be traced in most climate reconstructions on the basis of data obtained by using many various methods. It should be borne in mind that there is no linear correlation between the rise in global mean temperatures and the rise of the mean sea level: apparently, there must have been a certain time lag between the melting of the glaciers, the rise of the sea level and the rise of the mean temperatures. (Let us recall an experiment from the school course of physics, when a vessel with ice is being heated, but the temperature of the water into which ice turns at melting, only starts rising after all the ice has melted.), and as regards paleobotanic and paleozoological data about the climate, there must have been a certain time lag between the rise in the temperatures and the change in the areas where certain types of plants grow or certain types of animals live.
The discovery of "Heinrich events" is indicative of how little is known so far about the last Ice Age. It is difficult to imagine now that someone will be so bold as to assert with certainty that at the end of Pleistocene and the beginning of Holocene there could not have been events comparable in magnitude to or surpassing "Heinrich events", which could have caused a dramatic enough rising of the sea level.
4. Up to now we had been discussing the possibility of a fairly fast glacio-eustatic rise of the mean sea level. But in modelling the dynamics of the changes in the relative sea level for a specific region, besides the glacio-eustatic fluctuations of the mean sea level connected with the changing volume of the ice sheets, it is also necessary to take into consideration the changes in the absolute level of the earth surface, determined by the glacio-isostatic effects.
As we have already said in section "WHERE", at the time when the Scandinavian ice sheet existed, the earth crust beneath it was isostatically depressed under the weight of its mass, while at a distance from it, the crust was uplifted as a result of the isostatic balancing. If the area of the Celtic Shelf was situated in the zone of this uplift, so that the relative sea level there was lower than the mean sea level by the amount of this isostatic elevation, then, as the Scandinavian ice sheet receded and diminished, and the compensatory processes of the uplifting of the earth crust in the area of the ice sheet itself were taking place, and simultaneously its subsidence in the area which was uplifted, the speed of the rise in the relative sea level in the area of the Celtic Shelf constituted the sum of the speed of the glacio-eustatic rise in the mean sea level and the speed of the isostatic subsidence of the surface of the earth crust in this area.
The time scale of such isostatic processes is not quite clear. Their speed depends on a variety of factors, such as the toughness of the earth crust, the size of the blocks that are being balanced, the depth at which the isostatic balancing takes place, and the estimate of this speed depends to a great extent on the choice of this or that model of the structure of the Earth. Most researchers agree that in the wake of the disappearance of most of the ice sheets, the speed of the compensatory isostatic uplift and subsidence was substantially higher than can be observed now that the disappearance of the glacio-isostatic pressure of the ice sheets of the last glaciation has practically been compensated in full (23, 33).
If we assume that at the end of the last glaciation there had been a massive discharge of ice from the Scandinavian ice sheet similar to the "Heinrich events", then the decrease of the glacio-isostatic pressure could have been leapwise, and the compensatory isostatic processes could have developed with the maximum possible speed.
5. Another argument to back the thesis that none other than the rising of the sea level was the catastrophe that Plato described, is that the relief of the plain in point, in the west of Europe, was of such character, that the rising of the sea level by one metre could often have meant the retreat of the coastline by kilometres. I am sure that even if the full submerging of the territory lasted several years, the eye-witnesses (and victims), who were on a flat plain, must have perceived it as a very fast sinking of all the land they could see, from horizon to horizon (See again map of the Celtic Shelf).
To sum up briefly all the above-said, the hypothesis can be formulated as follows:
The narrative of Atlantis contained in the dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias" is neither the fruit of Plato's imagination, nor a reminiscence of the history of one of the Mediterranean cultures of the third-second millennium B.C. In all probability, it contains fairly accurate information of the cultures which existed in the late Pleistocene, at least, during the last glaciation, in the coastal areas of the Atlantic coast of Europe and the Mediterranean, whose climate was fairly mild, as well as of the events that took place at the end of Pleistocene and the beginning of Holocene, which brought about the demise of these cultures.
Plato's geographical descriptions of Atlantis correlate with sufficient precision with the actual paleogeographic situation at the time he specified: in the Atlantic Ocean, outside the Mediterranean Sea, there must have really existed land, where there was a plain adjoining the coast of approximately the same size as described by Plato. Most of the geographical details mentioned by Plato can be correlated with this land, which existed in the west of Europe, virtually without a stretch; most importantly, it was at the time Plato specified that it was submerged as a result of the rise of the sea level, which could well be fairly fast.
The contradictions between the very possibility of the existence of relatively highly developed civilizations at the time specified by Plato, and the existing ideas on the history of mankind, seem to be exaggerated, given the fact that most of the coastal areas, whose climate was conducive to the development of such civilisations and where their artifacts could be found, was submerged, and the extent to which the seafloor at appropriate depths has been explored by underwater archaeology, is indescribably low.
The main paradox of Plato's Atlantis seems to be that now that the Earth sciences have at long last developed more or less reliable ideas of the processes that were taking place when Atlantis is supposed to have existed, and it has eventually become possibe to examine and interpret in their context the information about Atlantis that has reached us, such an interpretation has become virtually impossible because of an unbelievable multitude of stereotypes, which owe their existence to the fact that people who read, translated and interpreted the narrative of Atlantis for over two and a half thousand years, did not have the modern knowledge of those processes.
The hypothesis we are putting forward, like any other hypothesis, is only a concept, and needs to be corroborated by facts. The verification of this hypothesis can be effected by organising an expedition for underwater exploration on the Celtic Shelf, in particular, in the Little Sole Bank area. The research is to include: a detailed survey of the bottom, using a side-scan sonar or a multi-beam echo-sounder, a profile recorder, satellite and hydro-acoustic navigation systems with a view to building a high resolution solid digital model of the bottom, on which objects could be singled out that might be the remains of ancient buildings. In case such objects are identified, they can be explored directly, with a remote operated underwater vehicle. If they really prove to be the remains of man-made stone structures, then a line can be drawn at the more than two thousand-year-old debate on Atlantis, and new horizons will open for a overhaul of the existing ideas of the history of mankind.
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