Last night (March 13), the National Geographic channel ran an hour long documentary chronicling the efforts of Hartford University archaeologist Richard Freund to find the lost city of Atlantis. The program, titled Finding Atlantis, presented a few intriguing finds and then spun those discoveries into a web of pseudoscience masquerading as science.
Freund, who previously appeared in a 2004 Nova special where he identified artifacts found in Israel as part of the legendary Temple treasure lost after the Roman invasion of Jerusalem, argues that a site on the southern coast of Spain is Plato’s Atlantis as well as the biblical city of Tarshish, a trading center mentioned briefly in the books of Chronicles, Kings, and elsewhere. Freund claims that the Spanish site conforms to Plato’s description of Atlantis because geophysical scans indicate that the city stood on an island surrounded by water, as Plato described.
Plato, however, said Atlantis was “larger than Libya and Asia together” (this island is not), and composed of several concentric rings with artificial canals connecting the rings of land in a riparian system (again, the Spanish site does not match). Finally, Plato claimed that the island was destroyed by an earthquake 9,000 years before Plato’s time (c. 9,400 BCE). Again, the Spanish site does not match. Initial radiocarbon dates place it anywhere from 5,000 to 2,400 years old.
Nevertheless, Freund believes that the circular shape of the site and the fact that it was possibly destroyed by a tsunami proves that the site was the legendary Atlantis, and he repeatedly emphasized how close the match was—close if you agree to change the facts that Plato wrote to “more plausible” versions. Doing so, of course, means that Freund is free to reconstruct an imaginary Atlantis of his own devising, one which is very different from Plato’s but which he can imaginatively recreate to match anything he happened to find on the ground.
I found especially ludicrous his attempt to explain a carving of a warrior holding a sword and a shield as a soldier “guarding” an aerial map of Atlantis, claiming the circular shield with its pattern of concentric circles, so very similar to other ancient shields, was really a 2,000-year-old remembered tradition of the layout of Atlantis! This in an age that did not make any other aerial maps! Earlier, Freund and his team were giddy with excitement after finding geometric-shaped rocks that they thought were the walls of Atlantis. They were completely natural in formation, but still Freund counted them as evidence on the grounds that Atlanteans “might” have built walls with them anyway—underwater, apparently, since they formed beneath the ocean.
There is no doubt, of course, that there is a real archaeological site buried in southern Spain. What it is exactly, we just don’t know. However, let us give Freund the benefit of the doubt and agree that everything he claims about its age and layout are true. What does this tell us? Nothing, actually. Freund can propose no method by which this fallen city is somehow remembered in street-level detail from Spain to Egypt to Plato over the course of thousands upon thousands of years without leaving a single trace in the records of Egypt or Greece or anywhere else. Not a single inscription, or papyrus, or statue, or vase painting. Nothing at all from 5,000 BCE until 360 BCE when Plato wrote the Timaeus and the Critias, the first ever mention of Atlantis. By this standard, we must take the Cyclopes, the Odyssey, the Underworld, and the Golden Fleece as true people and events, too, since they are amply better documented in the ancient record.
Most disturbing, I think, is Freund’s attempt to argue that Atlantis was really the biblical city of Tarshish. This is the entirety of what is known of Tarshish, from 2 Chronicles 9:21: “every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” (This is repeated in Kings 10:22). Obviously, Freund said, this is Atlantis because both Tarshish and Atlantis dealt in “metals,” the only ancient cities, he said, to do so. This is patently false, since other ancient sites, like Colchis on the Black Sea, were famous for their metalworking. Incidentally, southern Spain boasts neither apes (native to sub-Saharan Africa), nor peacocks (native to India and parts of sub-Saharan Africa), nor ivory (Africa again). This kind of Bible-mongering serves little purpose except to try to rope in Atlantis as confirmation of the Bible’s literal truth—something Freund inadvertently emphasizes when using biblical terminology such as the “holy of holies” when describing decidedly non-Hebrew sites. It is no coincidence that Richard Freund’s specialty is biblical archaeology and Judaic studies, not Classical, Bronze Age, or Neolithic archaeology.
But let us grant him his point and pretend that Atlantis is Tarshish. If this is true, then we have a contradiction. Tarshish traded with the Israelites during the reign of Solomon, traditionally around the tenth century BCE. This is thousands of years after Plato’s Atlantis sunk beneath the waves (9400 BCE), and at least a thousand years off from the proposed dates when the Spanish site was destroyed (possibly around 2000 BCE). Never mind that the books of Chronicles and Kings were likely composed no earlier than 560 BCE, at which time Tarshish must still have been an active port—one still in operation when Jonah tried to sail there in the Book of Jonah (composed c. 500 BCE). So Tarshish and Atlantis, like Schrodinger’s cat, both exist and do not exist, are active and destroyed, simultaneously. The only way to make the two into one is to change Plato, and once you change Plato you are no longer looking for “Atlantis” but are instead naming whatever you find in honor of Plato’s fictional allegory.
Apparently Freund dropped in to an active Spanish archaeological investigation into an actual ancient city, ongoing since 2005, and has hijacked it to generate publicity for his research into the connection between Solomon and Atlantis to prove the Bible true. Here is what the Spanish anthropologist Juan Villarias-Robles told the Telegraph about Freund:
"Richard Freund was a newcomer to our project and appeared to be involved in his own very controversial issue concerning King Solomon's search for ivory and gold in Tartessos, the well documented settlement in the Donaña area established in the first millennium BC.
"He became involved in what we were doing and provided funding for probes through his connections with National Geographic and Associated Producers.
"He left and the film company told us the documentary would be finished in April or May. But we did not hear from him and are very surprised it has appeared so soon and makes such fanciful claims."
National Geographic should be ashamed to present such poor reasoning and Biblical nonsense as science, especially without a single skeptical or opposing viewpoint.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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