sat 02/07/2022

Atlantis: The Evidence, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Atlantis: The Evidence, BBC Two

Atlantis: The Evidence, BBC Two

Did Atlantis really exist? Set aside the crackpot theories and look at the evidence

Here’s a question: what have the eminent Victorian statesman and four-times prime minister William Gladstone and the Nazi Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler have in common? Well, if you didn’t catch last night’s Timewatch Special, you'd probably never guess. They were both obsessed with discovering that great, drowned civilisation of antique myth, Atlantis. Gladstone thought it was located somewhere on the South Atlantic, so he proposed a government sponsored expedition but was turned down by the treasury, and Himmler thought that the Ayrian master race was directly descended from Atlantians and that Tibet was the place, so he organised an expedition in 1939 (as if there wasn’t enough to occupy him that year). Excluding the finer details of master-race lineage, could either of them have been right? Did Atlantis, as first envisaged by Plato, and subsequently spawning thousands of books, really exist?

Historian Bettany Hughes certainly thinks there’s some evidence. Clutching her pencil-annotated hardback edition of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, she goes in search of the lost city on the Greek archipelago of Santorini, south east of Athens. It was here, on its largest island of Thera, in about 1620 BC, that an off-the-scale volcanic eruption took place. Not only did it destroy a once-sophisticated and massively prosperous city, but resulted in an equally colossal tsunami that destroyed neighbouring Knossos in Crete, that great Bronze Age seat of Minoan culture discovered in the 1870s.

Thera still lies buried beneath some 100 feet of pumice and volcanic ash and archaeologists are still piecing together the tiny shards of elaborately decorated pottery that tell something of its story as an island civilisation. Meanwhile, a Greek architect has reconstructed, on computer, Thera's three-story buildings - surprisingly “Modernist“ in style. And as for Hughes? She believes she is standing on what was, in fact, Atlantis - or at any rate the city that Plato was thinking about when he created what is commonly thought to be an allegory of a civilisation destroyed as a punishment for its own hubris.

Admittedly, the evidence came across as a bit circumstantial, but it was compelling nonetheless. Plato’s account of Atlantian masonry, consisting of red, white and black stones, was a perfect match for the modern walls of the Minoan excavation site. And his account of a sea made impassable by small islands of mud could, in fact, be a description of the rafts of pumice left in the eruption’s wake.

So forget those more recent “accounts” of Atlantians being extra-terrestrials spawning world civilisations (a theory expounded by bestselling Swiss author and convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken, and probably not such a leap from Himmler's views); this was all starting to sound rather plausible. And maybe it really is of no account that Plato actually located his drowned civilisation outside the Mediterranean completely -  facing “the Pillars of Hercules”, in fact, which is the Strait of Gibraltar. Small detail. Hughes’s infectious enthusiasm carried us along nicely.

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Bettany Hughes, should actually read the book properly, before surmising plato spun the Atlantis story from things he had heard here and there. Plato was told the story by Solon, an Egyptian priest, who also told Plato how ,the Greeks had fought and stopped an advancing army before it reached Egypt, and, how that army was destroyed by the same force that destroyed Atlantis. (Which was due west of the pillars of Hercules.) The pillars where more than likely volcanic in nature and close enough together to be seen as twin pillars, to the east of Thera.

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