Science, Tech & Environment

New researchers continue the search for the ancient missing city of Atlantis

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Athanasius Kircher's Map of Atlantis (c.1669).

Credit:

Athanasius Kircher/Wikimedia Commons

From UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle, to crop circles and the Loch Ness Monster, there are many fascinating unexplained phenomena in the world.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

For author Mark Adams, his obsession of late has been the lost city of Atlantis, the island that Plato wrote about in an allegory about the hubris of nations. Lost forever, sunk to the bottom of the sea, in a location that none of us really know, Atlantis is a myth to some — and a serious mystery needing to be uncovered to others.

Adams used to see Atlantis as just a fun story. But then, after learning more, and traveling around the world in search of answers, he's had a change of heart. His new book, which hits stores next week, is called, "Meet Me in Atlantis."

“A lot of archeologists, anthropologists and historians won’t touch Atlantis with a 10-foot pole — it’s kryptonite because it’s bad for your career,” says Adams. “But those who I spoke to who were willing to discuss it said, ‘Find the kernel of truth in what is essentially a myth and then you’ll be able to determine how much the story is true.’”

According to Adams, there is at least a bit of truth to the story of Atlantis. For starters, instead of an entire island nation falling into the sea, research suggests that there was some sort of cataclysmic tsunami during the era.

“There seems to have been an actual maritime city of some sort that Plato based this on,” he says. The city described by Plato was "in front of the Pillars of Hercules," which is now the Straits of Gibraltar.

“I think that’s probably what Plato was referring to, although others have different theories,” says Adams. “As you look at all of the various Atlantis theories, you notice that people tend to bend the evidence in the direction of the location they’ve chosen for the possible site.”

But it’s not just modern day admirers of unexplained phenomena that believe Atlantis existed.

“Plato founded the first university, The Academy in Athens, and in one of the second generations that came after Plato died, a fellow named Crantor — a famous commentator on Plato’s dialogue — he believed it was real,” says Adams.

For many years, the idea of Atlantis was erased from human culture. Until one man dug it up in the 19th century.

“A fellow named Ignatius Donnelly, who was kind of a crackpot, he was a US Congressman from Minnesota and he found some of the first scientific data about mountain ridges on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Adams. “He used that to make these incredible extrapolations about Atlantis having been in the Atlantic.”

Many scholars think Plato invented the story of Atlantis as a way to present his philosophical theories. But Adams argues we need to play closer attention to his work.

“The story appears between The Republic, which is arguably the most influential work in Western civilization, and the Timaeus, which is Plato’s attempt to explain the universe and is one of the most influential books certainly in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” he says. “In between those two works, you’ve got the story of Atlantis. Obviously it meant something to Plato. Exactly what it meant, I don’t think we can tell.”

He continues: “Why would Plato insert [the story] at the beginning of the Timaeus, which is a very, very important work for him? To me it doesn’t make any sense, and he also repeatedly says, ‘This is a true story, this is a true story, this is a true story.’ Whether he is saying that ironically, we can’t tell from this vantage point.”

Plato said the story of Atlantis had ancient roots — even for his time. It was an oral tradition passed down to him from his ancestors who had first acquired the tale from Egyptian hieroglyphics.

“Does that mean it was passed down as oral history, or did he just make it up because he thought it was a good story?” asks Adams.

If Atlantis is based on an Egyptian story, Adams says we might just be waiting to uncover an inscription that could break this mystery open. Those interested are constantly searching for connections — in early January, a metal called orichalcum that Plato said was found in the city of Atlantis, was recovered from a ship that sunk off the coast of Sicily about 2,600 years ago.

“Up until this point, there have been two opinions on Atlantis: He either made it up, or it’s all true,” says Adams. “The truth probably lies somewhere in between — he made some of it up and some of it was actually based in oral history that was passed down to him.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.