I honestly don’t know where people get their bad ideas from. They just seem to make stuff up. The Huffington Post ran a piece yesterday by Francis Levy, a novelist and the founder of the pompously named Philoctetes Center for the Multi-Disciplinary Study of Imagination, in which Levy made a bizarre claim about Atlantis: “Plato said there were 10,000 towers in Atlantis and there are at least 10,000 Nuraghes ancient structures, dating from approximately 1500 BC—whose provenance and actual process of construction is a mystery.” No, he didn’t. Plato mentions towers only once in the Timaeus and the Critias, to say that there were towers on the bridges between the rings of Atlantis. Their number is not specified, and the only thing in Atlantis of which there were ten thousand were war chariots.
For a novelist and magazine writer, Levy seems to have a unique relationship with the English language, to judge by his nonsensical concluding sentence, which both confuses “ancestors” for “descendants” and makes not one but two terrible puns: “Thus if it is true that Sardinia was once Atlantis then the average Sardinian is a true ancestor of the Atlantans (sic), and not the kind you find in Georgia or even the Sardinian version of neurotic, neuraghic.”
But Levy was not the only person recycling ancient claims about the island of Sardinia. In Italy, journalist Sergio Frau told the Italian edition of Sputnik—no, not the same Russian magazine that popularized ancient astronauts and the hollow moon in the 1960s, but a new media company—that Sardinia is actually the lost continent of Atlantis. We first encountered Frau last August, when he organized a conference on the hypothesis that Atlantis was actually Sardinia, an idea he has been promoting for most of this century. Frau has of course decided that Sardinia, his father’s ancestral land, was the center of world culture in the Bronze Age and only a comet stopped the island from ruling the world. It always amazes me how often the center of the world is in the claimant’s own childhood home.
Sputnik published an English translation of some of Frau’s statements, and it was kind of sad. “Confirming this theory is very important to me,” he said, “According to Plato, Zeus (Greek god of the sky) wanted to punish the arrogant inhabitants of the island, and sent them a great flood.” Nope. Not true. The end of the surviving text of the Critias leaves off with Zeus angry at the Atlanteans and planning to punish them, but the text breaks off before the punishment is announced. Given the close similarity between this part of the text and the Near Eastern Flood myth, it’s likely that Plato intended to conclude the passage with a flood story, but this is not certain. It’s also not certain that the event described in the Critias is the same as the sinking of the island in the Timaeus.
Frau told Sputnik that UNESCO is interested in hearing more about his “theory,” which he has attempted to prove by documenting with drones damage done to the Sardinian towers called Nuraghe and attributing it to a tsunami spawned by the crash of a comet.
In the Italian version of the interview, Frau specifies that he takes issue with the name “Atlantis”: “Plato does not speak of Atlantis, the island which is not there. He speaks of the Island of Atlas.” He is literally correct; the Greek reads Ἀτλαντὶς νῆσος, “the island of Atlas,” though this is a bit like taking issue with the name of Virginia because it literally means the “land of the Virgin.”
Like most fringe historians, Frau, a journalist for La Repubblica since 1976, also feels that there is a conspiracy against him masterminded by historians and archaeologists, in this case government antiquities officials:
It must be said that in Sardinia there was a situation of great dishonesty, which, through La Repubblica, I have also denounced in my pieces. They had done many very serious things, like covering over an entire Roman amphitheater with wood, for example. The two superintendents in question were put on trial for abuse of office and corruption. When they learned that UNESCO wanted to hold a conference on my research in Paris, they made a petition against me, which was a marvel. I made an appeal to the [scholars of the] Mediterranean and put down in black and white what I think and what I say. Soon after I was invited to the Lincean Academy to hold a conference. (my trans.)
He speaks as if these events occurred recently, but they did not. The petition seems to be one that was circulated among Italian archaeologists more than a decade ago, in 2004, and it had no effect on Frau’s efforts. UNESCO held an exhibition of Frau’s ideas in 2005 in Paris, as did the Lincean Academy in Rome in 2006. He’s been flogging the same dead horse, to little effect outside Italy, ever since. Heck, in 2010, Italy gave him a prize for his book on Atlantis.
But his reasons for pursuing are, by his own admission, to glorify his homeland, and he shares with other fringe theorists a preoccupation with nineteenth century scholarship:
The purpose for my studies is a love of research, to restore a piece of history to the Mediterranean. Sardinia was left out of nineteenth-century studies because there was malaria here until 1950. One made one’s will before going to Sardinia. Today we get by on nineteenth-century arguments that are incomplete, and we are dazzled by the former Light of the East. From this part of the Mediterranean there is total darkness. (my trans.)
He is referring here to the old view that civilization began in the East, in Mesopotamia, and moved progressively westward with improvements until in reached whichever Euro-American culture wanted to cast itself as the apex of civilization.
Regular readers will remember that the Nuraghe towers of Sardinia have a long history of inspiring fringe theories, and in the nineteenth century the predominant views of Sardinia were, as they had been since Antiquity, that the island was a rural backwater populated by hicks and bumpkins. But the nineteenth century was also the time of the popularization of the myth that Sardinia was home to Bible Giants, the Nephilim, and as such, Ignatius Donnelly included the Nuraghe towers as proof that the civilization of Atlantis touched Sardinia (Atlantis, Part 5, chapter 6), since he identified the Nephilim with the Atlanteans and the round towers of Sardinia with those of Ireland and the western United States.
Frau is right that someone is getting by on incomplete nineteenth century arguments, but it is him, not scientists and archaeologists, who are dazzled by Victorian views.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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