For those of you interested in such things, Carl Feagans has a new breakdown of the report about the so-called “Roman Sword” recently reissued in condensed form. It goes without saying that his analysis has nothing good to say about efforts to “prove” that the sword is of Roman manufacture.
Today, however, I would like to talk a bit about Edwin Swift Balch (1856-1927), a Harvard-trained American lawyer who was one of the early explorers of Antarctica. He is credited with naming the continent’s two regions, which he bestowed with the creative names of “East Antarctica” and “West Antarctica.” I am interested right now in his opinions on the lost continent of Atlantis.
As you will undoubtedly recall, a few days ago Graham Hancock became upset because his own Atlantis theories received a warning from the TED organization, which called them “outdated” and “counterfactual.” In discussing the controversy, I remarked that there was a long scholarly history of looking for a real world basis for the Atlantis myth. This prompted me to review the 1912 lecture given by Pierre Termier, the famous French geologist, who argued forcefully for the reality of Atlantis. When his lecture was translated in 1916, American scholars produced rebuttals, which ran in the January 1917 edition of the Geographical Review.
In reading about the flap, I found a reference to a further discussion that had run in the May 1917 edition of the journal. Lo and behold! I found two more papers on Atlantis that I hadn’t seen before. The first of these was by Balch, who made one of the earliest arguments (though not the earliest) that Atlantis was actually a distorted memory of Minoan Crete. Since the Minoan civilization had only been discovered in the early 1900s, it is therefore unsurprising that the idea was not proposed much earlier.
Balch’s essay is a charming mix of the reasonable and the ridiculous, though the latter isn’t entirely his fault. Balch followed leading scholars of his day in accepting the reality of Piltdown Man, so the section of his essay speculating on whether Piltdown Man witnessed the collapse of an Atlantic island is a laughable remnant of an odd time in scientific history. The rest of the piece, however, is logical, if not always convincing.
In line with many of today’s writers who ascribe Atlantis to Minoan civilization in general or Santorini/Thera in particular, Balch dismisses many of Plato’s details as exaggerations or fabrications, either from Plato himself, his alleged source Solon, or his alleged source, the Egyptian priests. What he retains, however, is a description of Minoan civilization: a large central island controlling other islands and part of the mainland, a complex stone-wrought capital city, and a vast trade network. “Now this is an accurate description of Crete and Knossos, and as far as they are concerned there is nothing fanciful about it.”
Most interesting is Balch’s anticipation, years before it was proved, that Greece had been responsible for the end of the Minoan civilization. He compares what we would today call the Mycenaean takeover of Crete to the story of Athens defeating Atlantis. He gets the details wrong—Athens wasn’t a major Mycenaean center, for example—but the general thrust of his discussion is indistinguishable from modern versions of the same claim, with the exception of the volcano modern writers like to use as a deus ex machina.
The theory that Plato’s Atlantis was Minoan Crete, on the contrary, seems to stand up very well before recent archeological discoveries. At any rate it deserves to be more widely known, for it certainly seems to meet fairly completely the facts which the old Egyptian priest was trying to tell Solon and Solon to tell Plato of the destruction of what seems to have been the then already nearly forgotten civilization of Minoan Crete.
For its time, this was a very good argument, but I believe that it fails in that Plato’s story bears few hallmarks of genuine Antique legend. It is filled with bits and pieces of decidedly non-Egyptian material, such as Babylonian notions of astrology and of dual destruction by fire and water, as well as material drawn from the Near Eastern Flood myth. Nor does it seem similar to surviving Mycenaean myths. As Martin Nilsson demonstrated in the 1930s, genuine Bronze Age survivals in Greek mythology tend to correlate quite closely with Mycenaean centers that were active in the Bronze Age, even when these centers were no longer important in the Classical period. The story of Atlantis features two sites—Atlantis and Athens—that were unknown or unimportant in the Mycenaean period. Granted, Plato was Athenian and happy to rewrite material to the glory of Athens. But if that’s the case, then we aren’t talking about a “real” myth at all, but rather a fictionalized echo of a story whose original might have had nothing in common with the version we have. In other words, once you start admitting that parts of the story aren’t literally true, there’s nothing to suggest any of it is.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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