Getting academic specialists to discuss searching for Atlantis proved to be somewhat more difficult than I expected. Most of the e-mails I sent and re-sent to addresses ending in .edu went unanswered. One prominent archaeologist whom I contacted wrote back to inform me that no serious scholar would ever entertain the idea that any part of the Atlantis tale had been real, and that I was foolish even to inquire about such things. Her definitive sign-off was ominous: "I hope you listen, for the sake of your reputation as a writer."
I couldn't blame academics for being wary. Any online search for information about Atlantis quickly sucks one into a wormhole of conspiracy theories and magic portals to untapped dimensions. As I typed Atlantis-related search terms into Google, however, one glaring exception came up again and again, a site called the Atlantipedia. It was comprehensive, with hundreds of entries, all of which were written in an evenhanded style, offering dry commentary where appropriate. (Of one theorist who suggested that the Atlanteans had access to space travel, lasers, and cloning, the site's author noted, "A cynic might be forgiven for attributing his outlandish views to his unrepentant support for the use of marijuana.") The tone was skeptical but not dismissive. The range of subjects was exhaustive. Several feasible location theories were presented and dissected. The Atlantipedia, it emerged, was the work of one person, an Irish retiree named Tony O'Connell.
Excerpted from Mark Adams's Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City. Available from Amazon.
I emailed Tony and asked if he might be open to answering a few questions. He suggested a list of books to read and, to my surprise, invited me to come over to Ireland and stay with him as long as I liked. "The simple fact is that these theories cannot all be right and quite possibly all are wrong," he cautioned. "Take it slow or your head will spin."
Within a day of arriving at Tony's house, a former railroad depot in what was now Ireland's least-populated county, I had fallen into his leisurely daily routine. Late each morning, we drove over to the small city of Carrick-on-Shannon to do a little shopping and run some errands. Once our tasks were completed, we'd stop for a coffee and slice of cake so I could receive my intensive course in Atlantology.
When I had initially asked Tony why he thought the Atlantis story was true, he had pointed me to a fascinating scholarly essay by a former NASA scientist, the late A. N. Kontaratos, which cites twenty-two instances in which Plato attests to the veracity of the Atlantis story. Equally important for Tony was the fact that Plato credits as his source the great Athenian lawgiver Solon, who had heard about Atlantis from an Egyptian priest.
"Solon was a very important lawmaker, a very just man and highly regarded," Tony told me at the coffee shop, whose jazzy decor made it seem as though we were discussing lost cities on the set of Friends. "Plato using him would be like you writing a book and invoking Benjamin Franklin as your source. You wouldn't do it if it wasn't true."
On the other hand, Tony noted, "no one ever asks if Solon made it up. Or if the Egyptians made it up to impress their visitor. You've got to tread very carefully."
Tony believed that Plato's core story—that a large maritime power had waged a war against the eastern Mediterranean—was true, but that most of Plato's details should be viewed with skepticism. Most location theories I'd encountered—there seemed to be a new documentary promoting one on the BBC or Discovery Channel every month—relied heavily on the numbers and geographic details that Plato provides.
"People draw up checklists and conveniently leave out anything that might work against their theories," Tony said. "It doesn't work to get nine out of ten things to match up but the tenth is no good."
Kontaratos, the NASA scientist, had listed helpful criteria for finding what he termed "a potential resting site for Atlantis," the basic elements of which were
1. Atlantis must have been located someplace where an island exists or once existed.
2. The island must have once sunk, entirely or partially.
3. The island must agree with Plato's description of Atlantis's "distinct geomorphology." It should have concentric rings of water, mountains, and a large plain.
4. The island must have been home to "a literate population with metallurgical skills."
5. The island must have suffered a cataclysmic natural disaster.
6. The island must have been "routinely reachable from Athens."
7. The island must have been at war with Athens when the cataclysm occurred.
8. The island must have been situated "just outside" of the Pillars of Heracles (generally identified as the Strait of Gibraltar).
9. The island must have been destroyed around 9600 BC.
10. The island must have been as large as a continent or connected to a body of land of that size.
It was a very sensible-sounding checklist, but as I was slowly learning, every single one of these criteria was open to interpretation. Kontaratos, for example, argued that the rings of Atlantis were inspired by a semicircular earthworks in Poverty Point, Louisiana, a landlocked spot that wasn't exactly "routinely reachable from Athens," or even New Orleans. Some Atlantologists were arguing that the word island in the original Greek, for example, might signify something other than land surrounded on all sides by water. A surprising number of theories were based on the notion that the Greeks applied the name Pillars of Heracles to any number of narrow channels around the Mediterranean, and therefore Plato wasn't necessarily referring to the Strait of Gibraltar. Tony thought that the term might not represent an actual place but rather the furthest limits of Greek exploration during Plato's lifetime.
Over the days and various desserts, Tony and I discussed the pros and cons of the leading theories and how they stacked up against Plato's story. After a week, I'd narrowed my list of candidates down to four: the southwest coast of Spain, where researchers had spotted intriguing patterns in satellite photos that matched Plato's descriptions; Malta, which may have once been destroyed by a watery cataclysm and definitely had the oldest structures in the Mediterranean; the volcanic Greek isle Santorini, so rich in archaeological and geological evidence that even Jacques Cousteau had once steered the Calypso there to search for Plato's lost city; and a dark horse, a spot near the Moroccan city of Agadir, which a German I.T. specialist had located by scouring ancient literature for every mention of Atlantis that he could find and plugging it into an algorithm far too complicated for a math novice like me to understand.
Tony believed that clues to the location of Atlantis might even be found outside of Plato's writings, a possibility I hadn't considered. "You should study the deluge stories and look for the common elements," he said. Most ancient cultures seemed to have a Great Flood myth. The Deucalion flood, which the Egyptian priest tells Solon came after the greater cataclysm that sank Atlantis, is strikingly similar to the Noah's ark story and the Mesopotamian flood epic of Gilgamesh; in all three versions pious men are instructed by gods to build floating vessels in order to survive an inundation. Where exactly all of that water might have come from remained one of the great mysteries of antiquity. "One scenario that does make sense is an asteroid or comet in the ocean—that could've sent a giant tsunami around the world," Tony said, adding quickly, "obviously strange things have happened." I sensed that linking the Atlantis story to ancient myths, gigantic flying projectiles from space, and possibly the book of Genesis would not make mainstream academics any more likely to respond to my e-mails, but Tony had been at this game a lot longer than I had. I made a note to look into it.
"In the end, you have to go back and read Plato again," Tony said. "Be happy that what he's written has some degree of credibility. From that you can form a theory."
"The beginning is the most important part of any work," Plato wrote in the Republic. Spain. Malta. Greece. Morocco. It was a start.