Atlantis Found is the History Channel’s latest stab at trying to uncover the supposed truth behind the lost continent of Atlantis, and like its previous efforts, it relies on untenable assumptions to force Plato’s fictitious allegory into the framework of history. This version makes no bones about the fact that it intends to identify Atlantis with the island of Santorini, ancient Thera, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption sometime around 1620 BCE. “I’m putting all my money that the lost civilization of Atlantis is right here,” says Dr. Martin Pepper, our geologist protagonist, as on-screen titles tell us that this documentary is set up like a found-footage horror movie recording an expedition to seek out Atlantis in the summer of 2015. “This is what they found,” the titles ominously conclude. “Found” is a bit of an overstatement; “recycled from earlier Atlantis claims” might have been a bit more accurate, as the show concedes at the end when the narrator explains that it was “building” on earlier claims.
Atlantis Found offers nothing much that is new, quite a bit that is old, and a selective discussion of the Platonic dialogues that suggests that the producers are either purposely looking to bolster their case through omission or genuinely don’t understand their own source material. Worse, it is slow, repetitive, and larded with low-budget reenactments that stretch less than an hour’s worth of content into two hours of air time.
The narrator lionizes Pepper, formerly of the Science Channel’s How the Earth Works (2013), as “not a desk-bound academic” and informs us that “experts” are “increasingly” sure that Atlantis was a real place. That has never been true unless “increasingly” is meant to cover the fact that the number never was a majority.
Pepper has created a “roadmap” to find Atlantis based on details taken selectively from the Timaeus and the Critias, Plato’s two Atlantis dialogues that he then tries to match to the volcanic destruction of Thera, seen in cinematic recreations. These details include a link to Egypt, and advanced civilization, a ringed city, colored rocks, etc. He leaves out one key detail from the Critias that would undercut his entire claim: “Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island,” Plato wrote (all translation are to Benjamin Jowett’s edition of the Timaeus and Critias). Where are our elephants? I demand elephants!
We can’t have elephants, of course, because to find “Atlantis” is to pick and choose only those details one prefers to keep and omit all the rest, such as the fact that Plato placed the destruction of Atlantis around 9600 BCE, some 8,000 years before the volcano destroyed ancient Thera. If we are allowed to pick only specific details, we can “match” Atlantis to anything.
This prompts a long discussion of the effects of the volcano and some rhetorical questions that ask us whether Atlantis’s various monuments “could have” been located on a hypothetical island that might have once existed where now there is only water in the collapsed cone of the volcano. Pepper eventually concludes that Santorini had the required ring-shaped structure to match Plato’s description despite finding no solid evidence of this.
The trouble is that Pepper isn’t a historian, and isn’t really well-versed in Greek mythology, so instead of trying to understand what Plato meant by Atlantis, he is instead back-forming his idea by trying to match geology to an ancient text before bothering to establish whether there is any warrant for doing so. He might just as well go searching for Panchaea, Utopia, Frisland, Lilliput, the Island of Dr. Moreau, Isla Nublar, or any other imaginary island. One can find a “match” to selected details, but it won’t mean anything if you can’t show an actual connection to the texts that supposedly prompted the search.
Pepper also tries to match Minoan civilization on the island to the “advanced” civilization of Atlantis. The trouble is that Plato’s Atlantis wasn’t particularly advanced, except in its use of metals that don’t appear on Santorini. Beyond this, the Greeks were familiar with the Minoans and retained memories of their civilization, as evidenced from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, not to mention the Bronze Age civilizations recalled in Homeric myths. It is unclear how we can propose a separate and confused myth of the same Bronze Age civilization that is wildly inaccurate and placed so far out of time.
Pepper declares Santorini “definitely a match” for Atlantis’ civilization despite the lack of orichalcum, the mythic metal Plato associated with Atlantis, and the lack of elephants, or even an association between Santorini and Poseidon and Atlas, as in the dialogues.
As the first hour comes to a close, the show decides to bring in Nazis—because this is the History Channel! But to get to that point, the show needs to set up a straw man argument, that the Canary Islands are the remnants of Atlantis, for Pepper to disprove to make his own suggestion look more credible. Pepper tells us that Athanasius Kircher, the seventeenth century polymath, placed Atlantis in the Atlantic, where the Canaries now are. He then reviews Ignatius Donnelly’s version, which did not make the Canaries part of the continent itself. This brings us to Heinrich Himmler and his search for Aryan cultures derived from Atlantis and other lost continents. Pepper neglects to note that Donnelly had inspired such ideas by specifying that the Atlanteans were a lost white race who became the gods of old and the Biblical men of renown.
In the Canary Islands, Pepper looks at Guanche mummies to see if they could be Atlanteans. The Guanche might have inhabited the Canaries from 1000 BCE. The program tells us that the “mysterious” Guanche people were tall and white, so much so that they impressed the Spanish with their lost white race magnificence. Yes, “the glory of Atlantis” (as the show puts it) is once again associated with the whiteness of one’s skin. In case anyone cares, when Al-Idrisi wrote of the same people 400 years earlier, he called them “men of tall stature and red color” (Nuzhat al-Mushtaq 4.1). It just goes to show you that impressions are subjective.
Pepper concludes, correctly, that the Canaries were not part of a lost continent, but since Plato was wrong about the location of Atlantis, this makes it hard to argue that any other claim from Plato is necessarily true. To do so anyway, he now intends to rescue Plato’s account by “proving” that the remainder of it is factual. Therefore, he plans to look for evidence of Plato’s fictitious war between Athens and Atlantis.
To do so, Pepper is looking to confirm the claim made by Plato that the Athens of 9,600 BCE (which date he of course rejects) accurately depicts the Mycenaean Acropolis, including a fortification and a now-dry spring. I covered this topic back in April, before this documentary went into production. As I noted at the time, the fortification walls were well-known in Plato’s day (cf. Herodotus, Histories 6.137.2), and the dry spring was visible down to the 1820s, when it was finally covered over. In other words, Plato needed no special knowledge from the Bronze Age describe the ancient Acropolis, but Pepper nevertheless concludes that Plato’s description is so accurate that it gives him confidence that the rest of the description is correct. He further speculates that Plato made up the Pillars of Hercules to adapt an Egyptian story for Greek ears, despite there being no evidence of such an Egyptian story.
In the second hour, a 3D map of the water-filled collapsed Santorini volcanic cone, the caldera, made by a team of geologists from two types of scans, concludes that Santorini’s shape was once round rather than the broken circle we see today. The geologists also “revealed here for the first time” that there was a small channel “cut through the caldera rim.” The channel, which was 500 meters wide before the Thera eruption, is now much wider. They call this a “ship canal” from Plato’s description, but they do not provide any evidence that this channel was artificial rather than natural. Plato was quite clear on this point: “And beginning from the sea they bored a canal of three hundred feet in width and one hundred feet in depth and fifty stadia in length, which they carried through to the outermost zone…” The narrator and our hero dismiss Plato’s account again, saying that the “memory” of the channel through the outer ring was distorted over time into a claim of canals linking multiple rings.
Let me stop and repeat this: Pepper is willfully ignoring huge chunks of Plato, declaring them inoperative, and nevertheless concluding that he has found an exact match.
Next, the documentary shows us a fresco of sailing from Santorini, which the show pretends is somehow new and exciting. It was featured on In Search of Aliens last year in their Atlantis show! It’s also on Wikipedia. Pepper places great emphasis on Atlantis as a trading empire, though Plato didn’t describe it as such; instead, he described it as a true empire, ruling outright islands and part of its continent and “the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.” Where is the evidence of this? Or are we “discounting” that, too?
In the last half hour, Pepper travels to Egypt to try to prove that Plato got the story from the priests of Egypt, via his ancestor, Solon. Pepper believes that the Egyptians remembered the fall of Santorini, told to them by a survivor, though there is no evidence that they considered the Minoans to be formidable enemies. Instead, they seem to have been trusted trading partners. It was the Sea Peoples that the Egyptians loathed. Besides, the destruction of Thera did not end Minoan civilization, nor did it cause the Bronze Age collapse, both of which occurred several centuries later. Dr. Elena Pischikova argues that a fragmentary text found broken in a wall at Luxor describes the Santorini eruption, the only text to do so. It is ascribed to the reign of what I believe is Ahmose I, though the pronunciation the narrator gave made it hard to match to a pharaoh. The mummy they show seems to be a match for his, though. The trouble is that Ahmose I reigned a century after the Santorini eruption and couldn’t have been an eyewitness. (There is some dispute about the exact date of the eruption, with some arguing that the radiocarbon dates are inaccurate and should be revised to around 1500 BCE; however, tree ring and ice core dating suggest a date in the 1620s BCE.)
As the show moves toward its conclusion, Pepper looks for evidence that Bronze Age people had lots of different plants, to match Plato’s description of a land of plenty. This is such a standard description of magical islands in Greek literature that it isn’t worth discussing. Compared to the harsh landscape of Greece, every area was a land of plenty to the Greeks.
In the last minutes of the show, the geological team explains that the eruption occurred from the center of the ring, and they conclude that there was an island in the center of the caldera large enough to have held a city, roughly the size of downtown Manhattan—not that they have any evidence of such a city. This should not be a surprise to anyone since the magma emerging from the volcano created successive volcanic cones that eventually erupted; in other words, there was always a central island, except in the centuries immediately following an eruption before a new one formed.
“That’s exactly how Plato describes Atlantis!” Pepper enthuses, forgetting that Plato also told us that Atlantis is gone forever while Santorini is not, and mentioned no volcano. Indeed, he mentions no explosion either. He says that the island was shaken and flooded, all of the men sank into the earth, and then the island descended into the sea. This does not match the Santorini event, which did not have pre-eruption flooding according to the evidence, and had no moment when the men all sank into the ground. Oh, and Plato also said a giant wall of mud took its place.
The narrator speculates that history would have been very different had the “Atlantean” advanced kingdom “not been destroyed” but neglects to note that Santrorini was merely an outpost of the more powerful Minoan civilization which went on for hundreds of years and somehow failed to create a utopia of peace. Besides, didn’t Plato tell us in the Critias that Atlantis was corrupt and warlike? Why would we want more of that? Oh, right: We’re not interested in Atlantis as given in Plato but rather the utopian Atlantis of modern imagination, the one that is whatever we want it to be.
So, our “exact” match doesn’t match:
But otherwise, it’s exactly as Plato described!
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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