Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Small Contribution to a Big Discussion: The Legend of Atlantis and Pre-Columbian Voyages to the Western Hemisphere.

This is not one of my more "romantic" posts, so forewarned. I don't find evidence for a supercivilization pre-dating our well-known ancient histories, even though I do believe that the Legend of Atlantis had some basis in fact. What I have to say here is largely repetitive for those who have made a study of this area, but maybe there are some minor additions to the discussion even there. In a oddly curved way, the idea for this post came from my re-noticing a smallish artifact from my collection. It is pictured above with a coin-stamp for sizing, and I'll mention it's small role later. [It's a piece of thin beaten copper from PreColumbian Peru.]

Almost anything that we could honestly claim to know about the idea of "Atlantis" comes from the almost-as-legendary Athenian statesman and diplomat, Solon [from whom our current politicians could learn a lot]. Plato tells us that he, through a non-linear but reasonable way, got his information about Atlantis ultimately from Solon, and if we can't believe that, we can't get anywhere at all on this subject. But for me, it's an easily believable statement. Plato's Timaeus and Critias are therefore the primary documents for the concept of Atlantis.

Despite being probably the best statesman Athens ever had, Solon was under some political stress at a later time in his life, and decided to retire, sort of. He then did what many influential Greeks might do: take a trip to the city which would become "Alexandria" in Egypt. This was the centerpiece of Egyptian commerce with other nations, and well-known to many persons such as Greeks, Phoenecians, Hittites, Israelites, et al. It was also a center of religion and of knowledge, even before the much later atrocity of the burning of the Alexandrian Library.

It was here that Solon says that he learned of the old story of Atlantis from Egyptian priest-scholars in that dynamic city. We can imagine that as a powerful visiting dignitary, and a potentially valuable close ally, Solon's visit was not "pure pleasure" and rather more serious discussions about Athens and Egypt took place [particularly as there were states very aggressive and dangerous to both in the region].

Solon says that he was told that there was a time long ago when the Athenians and the Egyptians fought side-by-side against a mighty foe. They were "brothers-in-war" and rightly should be so "today". That mighty foe was dimmed in the mist of time, but many facts were allegedly still on record in the Egyptian library. It was an island power "beyond the Pillars of Hercules", whose ships threatened all seafarers. Its chief cities were described and some of its culture. It was destroyed by a great cataclysm, sinking beneath the sea.

And all that we know, and in honesty that's about it period.

But Atlantis is a great concept, so persons of all stripes have tried to elaborate on it. There are two great clumps of theory types which have evolved: the ones based on Trance Mediumship and the ones based on Archaeology. If anyone wants to buy into any of the trance medium-based concepts, that is their right. I'd consider it, but I find exactly Zero supporting evidence for anything that any of these people have said. The fact that every one of these theories requires that entire high tech civilizations have disappeared from the planet leaving no tangible traces, nor any other method of substantiating credible information, leaves me decidedly unwilling to walk Out Proctor on this trail.

The Archaeological Band of theories though are different. They all have at least some connectivity to other investigatible facts, and take conscious concern with facts already established by serious research and scholarship. Of these theories, the one which has from its beginning intrigued me the most is the idea that the monstrous explosion of the Volcano of Thera was centrally involved with the legend. This is and has been a rich hypothesis to explore, and, in my opinion, has still much to offer in spite of the intense attacks it has received.

You know the basis for the idea. Crete was the powerful sea-going force in the Mediterranean for the period c.2500-1400BC and therefore must have been a formidable naval foe for Egypt and any other power. The Greeks were "nothings" in this era, especially as regards sea travel. Cnossus on Crete was the center of the culture, but the island to the north, Thera, was a wealthy second focus of strength. It unfortunately was also on the extrusion of a very large volcano. Sometime during the 1400-1300BC period or thereabouts [it's a lot tougher than one thinks to nail these dates down any tighter], the big volcano shook and blew. It not only blew but it blew factors more violently than things like Krakatoa. Mt. St. Helens was a mere firecracker. Thera of course was wiped out. A huge tidal wave would have rushed outwards. As the caldera collapsed, the inrush was followed by a jerking back of the waters, and then the counteraction of a second rebound tidal wave. Estimations exist in the literature of 600 foot tidal waves bearing down on the northern coast of Crete.

All manner of objections to this theory immediately let fly. "The date is wrong"--- to me pretty small change. Exaggerating "legends" by factors of ten or other magical numbers is common in giving something a more legendary status. "Thera didn't blow in 1500BC" --- who cares? The Minoan civilization existed as a power then, and Thera blew sometime in the "same distant past" thereafter. "Thera didn't end the power of the Sea Kings" [in other words the Minoan civilization didn't drop like a shot just due to this catastrophe]. I'm always amused by this argument. Certainly no one would deny that the volcano took out the number two Minoan city rather completely. And how does one argue that this sort of blow doesn't weaken you? No one seriously thinks that 600' tidal waves bearing down on your northern coast [where many of your ports exist], is going to be a benign economic experience. AND, and this is always conveniently left out of the argument, the ashfall from Thera should have been horrendous on Crete, and agriculture should have taken a longterm blow of big proportions. "Sudden Death"? No. Seriously weakened condition? You bet.

Lots of other stuff has been floated to oppose the Theran Solution to the origins of the Atlantis legend. To me none of them really stand unless one pretends to literal obsessiveness about a tale told Solon about something that happened nine centuries earlier than the telling.

I choose to believe the following:
a]. The Egyptians had a foe who lived on an island in the Sea, they knew not where. That foe mysteriously weakened and ultimately disappeared in the wake of several colossal events. It was reported that this catastrophe completed destroyed an island leaving nothing but a sea of thick mud. This legend was maintained in memory by the Egyptian priests [along with countless other pieces of knowledge which became the Library of Alexandria] for the intermediate centuries between those times and the visit of Solon.
b]. The Greeks too had a cultural legend of a mighty sea power "beyond the Pillars of Hercules" which disappeared in a huge catastrophe which destroyed much of the coast facing the east and southeast. Their more primitive Mycenaean sailors may have discovered the sea of mud just beyond the Pillars.
c]. The two legends were ripe to rejoin for a political reason.

But what of this "Pillars of Hercules" business? Everyone knows that the Pillars of Hercules are the lands on each side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Well, no. The Pillars of Hercules were the Greek way of symbolizing the Edge of the Known World. In Solon/Plato's time they WERE at the Straits of Gibraltar. But c.1000BC they were at the Straits of Messina, between Italy and Sicily, according to our best reading of old myths. And back in Minoan times, the much less seaworthy Mycenaeans would have viewed the Pillars as islands just to the southeast of the mainland. And what would be the first land just beyond those Pillars? Thera.

So what else makes this make any sense? This guy --- Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II. He was pharaoh just at the time of Solon. And he SHOULD be pictured on his knees as he was a weak one. Faced with major threats to Egypt from the near-eastern powers, Necho decided to take a page out of the books of past Pharaohs and put on some sort of spectacular display to make a show of power and revitalize the Egyptian psyche. He tried a couple of gimmicks which didn't work. Desperate for a success, he decided to order his navy to circumnavigate Africa. With a lot of help from Phoenecian sailors, they did.

Stick-in-the-mud historians have doubted that the Egyptians pulled this off. To that I laugh. I believe that in every instance that I've come across where there has been doubt about humans' abilities to pull something off, the doubters have been proven wrong. We have many flaws, but we are awfully brave, tenacious, and clever. Necho's naval commander and his Phoenecians circumnavigated Africa, you can count on it. Why so confident? Necho was desperate for a "winner". He and his admiral already knew it could be done. Heck, his "phoenecians"[probable heirs to the knowledge of the old Sea kings anyway] had probably done it already themselves and had maps.

So the Egyptians went 'round Africa, so what? I believe that this is just the most public of the "trips" that Egyptian explorers made around and through Africa over years and centuries. They would have known about peoples, about legends, about mines and various items of produce and trade. They might well have seeded some colonies here and there. This is easily within their abilities and time available.

Did they? There are wisps of smoke indicating this all over the place. Even in Egyptian painting itself there are all sorts of indications of depth knowledge of Sub-Saharan ["Black"] Africa. It wasn't all just "Nubians". There are signs in some still-existing legends of ideas of stories harking back to ancient Egypt in 20th century West African legends. Lots of smoke --- a raging fire in my opinion.

Far down the East African coast in what is modern Zimbabwe, there are areas of very old rock paintings. One which has particularly intrigued archaeologists is "The White Lady" [lower of the two pictures]. Analysts of this painting see it as of strong Egyptian influence, and maybe of a Mediterranean type person.

I ran into something which supports at least some of this. I was writing a cryptozoological paper trying to identify the animal represented in the god Set, when Richard Greenwell challenged me that Set was only a Giraffe. That was preposterous, and to this day I believe that Richard was only teasing me to get me to write more about the archaeo-and-biological side of my publication. It was good that he did, because I found, down near the White Lady, other paintings which appear to show "Set Masks" with Egyptian-style wigs associated with the representation. For our purposes, it is a near certainty that loads of strong Egyptian influence existed so far down the east side of the continent, that it is a mere whimsy for a sailor to decide to round the Cape of Good Hope.

And then? They'd keep going and circumnavigate Africa. Or would it be that straightforward?

As you can see from the upper map, Atlantis has been located about anywhere you'd care to throw a dart. What I think is very likely is that some of these early Africa continental sailors DID think that they found Atlantis [or what was left of it], and THAT IT WAS THE SARGASSO SEA.

I noticed something a while ago on maps of the sea. When coming up the west coast of Africa, there are currents which try to shear you off course towards South America. You might find yourself landed on the northeast coast of Brazil, or sailing along the northern edge of South America, or trying to get back east and home, and running into the Atlantic Gyre which is the Sargasso Sea. And what would one find there? A creepy dead zone of floating debris miles and miles wide. How could it possibly be? What catastrophe could have resulted in this? Hmmmm... Where is this place? Hmmmm.... Beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

Necho's expedition had just returned to the same Egyptian port which Solon was visiting only months or so earlier. The information from the circumnavigation was no doubt the talk of the town. It doesn't make any difference whether Necho's expedition went off-course or not; the point would be that as Solon arrived, all the past information about "what was out there" would be currently active in the consciousness of the priests and the Egyptian statesmen. Necho needed allies. Here was Solon. Let's tell him how we fought together against the power beyond the Pillars. Solon probably liked the idea whether he believed it or not. It served a purpose.

I find it intriguing, to say the least, that ancient-looking Amphoras have been found off the eastern coast of Brazil. "They surely shouldn't be there". Shouldn't they? [The picture above was from one of Ivan's dump piles that he never got around to filing, but seemed on the road to doing so. Ivan would be interested in such things since he believed that the "Copan Elephant" was real, and his theory was that it had been a shipborn import from Eastern Africa by way of West Africa].

Again, the smoke surrounding Pre-Columbian visits from ancient civilizations is thick. The distinctively non-Amerindian bearded guy on the cup is just one pottery representative. The cloth weaver fellow's views remind me that the Smithsonian was so impressed with an analogous analysis of pottery designs that it set up a large exhibit touting proof that Chinese sailors had visited the Pacific side of Latin America in ancient times. If one dumps the "Atlantis" add-on from the weaver's analysis above, and goes directly with Egypt, you have a perfect twin of an idea.

So, now trivially, back to my own little artifact way up there at the start of this post. What's its story? Maybe not much, but.... far back in time, cultures were trying to figure out the concept of money. Pure barter is nice for community interaction, but a perfectly horrible way to try to run a diverse economy. One badly needs a "commonly accepted unit of exchange". Ultimately: "money". The thing above was an early try from the eastern Mediterranean. It is a copper ingot [pretty thick and heavy] meant to symbolize the hide of an ox --- and on faith be acceptable/tradable as if an ox-worth of value. Hides of all kinds tended to have this similar shape, the extensions a reminder of the animal's legs.

This sort of representation in copper was also allegedly an early attempt at money in Egypt. Way up top is my artifact. It IS copper and it could be viewed as pounded into something like a hide shape. The people who allegedly know these things say that it IS supposed to represent some form of the "copper hide" style of money [though it would have to either be "small change" or a culture at a more advanced stage of the money concept, where things are miniaturized to make commerce less a weightlifting event]. So, the point? If my artifact IS a hide-type pre-currency, the fact that it comes from Peru makes things interesting. From whom did these guys get the idea, not just of a trading unit but of this specific idea of a trading unit? Maybe nothing. Maybe something.

Just for fun: a last Romance.

This is another artifact in my collection. It's a particularly crumby one --- note the terribly malformed lip of the cup and the ragged base --- an unfinished dud.

This cup comes from Crete at roughly the time of Thera's big blow.

Here is our honorable hard-working potter beginning a new cup. Suddenly horrendous thunderings and shakings occur, throwing him and his work to the floor. When he comes to his senses, he runs from his shop. Sometime later he sweeps the debris aside into a spoils pile. Centuries later, an archaeologist thinks that he's found treasure....

well, maybe he did.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks for a refreshingly sober and plausible approach to the Atlantis subject.

    1. Calling it as I see it. Too much smoke to say that this was a complete fictional invention by Plato, but no hint of the Out Proctor claims of an early pre-history civilization of Pyramid builders, laser-ray users, and space travelers either. Truth must lie in some middle ground, methinks.