Newspaper Roundup: The "Daily Mail" Seeks Atlantis in Spain, While the "Boston Globe" Hunts the Westford Knight
On the edges of history, fanciful stories never really die. They pass into pop culture folklore, endlessly recycled from one article to the next. Why? That’s a great question. As the recent Chapman University survey showed, one reason is that anywhere from a plurality to a majority of Americans believe in false history like Atlantis, ancient astronauts, and their ilk. The other reason is that these stories become the equivalent of the “bus-plunge” story—a familiar narrative that can be used reliably to fill time and space with a minimum of effort. The “bus-plunge” story is named for a distressingly frequent feature in newspapers of the twentieth century, which would fill blank spaces on their pages with small stories about buses plunging off of cliffs and bridges, usually in South America and India. As morbid as it sounds, these events happened (and continue to happen) with such frequency that editors could guarantee that they will always have one on hand to fill in any blank spaces, changing only the dateline and the number of victims. Atlantis, aliens, etc. are similarly easy features that require little effort.
To that end, it was no surprise that The Daily Mail—as several regular readers informed me—latched on to a recent claim by Merlin Burrows, a scanning and surveying outfit, that they have discovered proof of Atlantis in Spain, where a series of cable TV documentaries over the past five years have placed it.
Maritime historian Tim Akers, head of research at Merlin Burrows, said not only had they discovered Atlantis, but also found the people were incredibly advanced.
Akers claims that a blue-green residue found near Doñana National Park, north of Cadiz, represents proof of Plato’s truthful account of Atlantis. “Plato describes in detail a patina on the buildings and structures of the cities and temples making up this complex,” he said. I believe he is referring to a passage in the Critias in which Plato preposterously asserts that all of the walls ringing Atlantis were plated in metals, and all of the temples with precious metals: “The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum. … . All the outside of the temple, with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold.” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). As you can see, Plato doesn’t speak of a patina, nor of just one covering but rather of incredible—literally—amounts of metal (even if just leaf) covering every surface of whole walls ringing the city.
As the Daily Mail dryly noted, many of the ruins that Merlin Burrows identifies as belonging to Atlantis are known or suspected Greco-Roman sites from Classical Antiquity. Akers has radically re-dated them to the last Ice Age and alleged that the structured he used satellite imagery to discover “match exactly Plato’s dimensions with no deviation.” Given that the length of Greek stadia varied greatly over Antiquity (modern estimates range from around 157 meters to more than 200 meters), it will be a neat trick to hear how he determined the correct length to use for such a match. Akers and his team also declared that Neolithic ruins in Spain were the eroded ruins of Atlantean buildings.
Akers declared these stone age ruins “the peak of human life on earth.” Insert your own joke here.
Naturally, Merlin Burrows have produced a documentary about their “discovery” and openly told the Mail that their purpose was to “secure funding for further research”—in other words, to get paid. Indeed, the company believe that they can successfully exploit Atlantis as an economic draw for all of Spain’s Seville region. They did not, however, answer the obvious question of how a powerful and militarily puissant Athens supposedly existed in 9600 BCE when there was no fully developed city before Mycenaean times and only small settlements before that. Apparently, Plato is only reliable when his details match one’s prejudices.
Meanwhile, a newspaper closer to home recycled yet another old chestnut this week. The Boston Globe delivered another in a fairly steady series of newspaper stories covering the so-called Westford Knight, a weird story that refuses to die. As I reported three years ago, the earlier accounts of the supposed carving of a medieval knight on a slab of rock in Westford, Massachusetts do not actually refer to either a knight or to clear evidence of intentional carving:
This claim may well be false, since the Westford image was first described in an 1874 gazetteer of Massachusetts … : “The mineral called ‘andalusite’ is found here; and an immense ledge which crops out near the Centre has upon its surface ridges furrowed in former times by glacial forces. There is upon its face a rude figure, supposed to have been cut by some Indian artist.”
Indeed, there is some testimony that the “sword” hilt on the figure was actually intended to be a peace pipe and was carved around the time I referenced above.
Anyway, the usual suspects appear in the Globe article, notably novelist David Brody, a longtime advocate of the Westford Knight’s medieval origins. “I’m blown away by how much evidence there is,” Brody told the Globe, despite their being no medieval artifacts ever uncovered in connection with the rock. “The overwhelming weight of the evidence in this case points to the authenticity of the legend,” Brody said. There is not a single piece of evidence that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney ever left Europe, let alone led an expedition to Massachusetts. Those facts which do remain about the only document from medieval times used to support this claim, the so-called Zeno narrative, actually refute it. The Zeno narrative clearly states that the character identified as Sinclair in the 1780s—Zichmni—traveled only to Greenland. The documentary record contracts key facts of the Zeno narrative, which, to be clear, its compiler admitted to recreating from memory and fancy in the 1580s after allegedly destroying the original, supposedly dated to the 1390s.
The Globe compared the myth of the knight to the Roswell UFO crash—an implausible myth sustained by a culture of belief, and, we might add, cynical or sensational media coverage.
One Westford resident summed up the appeal of the legend in an accidentally revealing interview response: “I like the romance of the story. I like the connection to Scotland. And I like Westford being featured as a very important place.” In short, the appeal of the story is (a) fantasy, (b) Eurocentrism, and (c) local pride. That basically sums up three quarters of the fringe claims we find associated with the out of the way corners of America. Brody concurs: “If this legend is true, it rewrites the history books, and Westford is really the first place we know of that Europeans came to explore,” Brody said. Except it isn’t. The Vikings were active in Newfoundland hundreds of years earlier.
I’ll give the Globe credit: Their article appropriately emphasized the skeptical viewpoint and accurately reported the complete and total lack of evidence for the wild claims made for the Westford Knight.
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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