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Back to Atlantis Again

In response to:

Atlantis or Bust from the May 22, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

I should like to comment on M. I. Finley’s review of my book, Voyage to Atlantis, in the May 22 issue of The New York Review of Books.

I do not believe that Professor Finley has grasped the truly cataclysmic nature of the Thera eruption, collapse and associated earthquakes and the great drought which probably followed. He states that I do not explain why the 1450-1400 B.C. destruction of Crete was more severe than the earthquake damage of 1700 B.C. A great deal of the book is devoted to just this question, showing that the catastrophe of 1450-1400 B.C. was without parallel in man’s experience. His impression here is distinctly a minority one since most students of Aegean prehistory now accept the unique destruction of the Cretan culture in 1450-1400 B.C.

In reciting the sequence of events culminating in the Cretan destruction, Finley states that wind-blown ash, on the evidence of deep-sea cores, reached Palestine and North Africa in thicknesses of but one millimeter. On the contrary, considerably more ash than this has been discovered as far away as the southern Red Sea.

Finley states, “The second problem is that of the effects beyond the immediate area of the catastrophe, and that is not one for seismologists but for archaeologists and historians.” To this parochial statement I take strong exception. The reconstruction of events in the second millennium B.C. Aegean has been achieved as much by seismologists and geologists as by archaeologists. The Thera catastrophe is a geophysical problem, par excellence. In addition, I should prefer to consider archaeology as a broad field including practitioners in many sciences rather than the evidently narrow usage of Finley.

Finley considers the Carbon-14 dates from deep-sea cores to be worthless because they are approximate. Their value lies in establishing the geographical extent of the ash and distinguishing the Minoan eruption of Thera from earlier Pleistocene eruptions and those in other locations and in establishing the prevailing wind direction at the time of the catastrophe. In addition, the refractive index of the ash proved specific enough to pinpoint the source of the ash as Thera. The precise dating of the events of the catastrophe, their sequence and timing, is based on relative dating of artifacts, Carbon-14 dating of wood and geological stratification. This is explained in detail in the Appendix, where it is pointed out that pottery sequence remains the most precise relative dating tool.

Finley presents a garbled discussion of the Carbon-14 date of wood found on Thera in 1956 by Prof. Galanopoulos. This key datum, establishing the catastrophe at the peak of the Minoan culture, produced two conflicting dates. The earlier one 1422±150 B.C. was preferred because the other was contaminated with humic acid, a common source of error. Since 1958, when the dating was performed at Lamont Geological Observatory, more information on the world background inventory of the Carbon-14 isotope has been gathered. This has indicated that previously calculated dates should be modified. Thus I have changed the date to 1522±100 B.C. The procedure and its basis are explained on pages 269-271 of the book. The 1522 is not a “nasty misprint” as Finley asserts.

Finley is disturbed by the logistics of my association of the Philistines with the Cretan refugees. He also implies that I have ignored the 200 year discrepancy between 1400 B.C., my preferred date for the Cretan destruction (The final phase of the Thera cataclysm) and the 1200 B.C. date preferred by many scholars for the Exodus of the Israelites and the entry of the Philistines into Palestine. Contrary to Finley’s implication, I have gone into this dating problem in depth even to suggesting that the Cretan destruction may have occurred as late as 1300-1200 B.C. because I, too, believe that the Egyptian documentation is more secure than the Aegean. Finley has ignored the great Aegean drought which followed the Thera catastrophe and may have been caused by it. The absolute dating of the sequence, eruption, earthquakes, collapse, drought has a tolerance of at least ± 100 years. It will not be surprising if we find considerable upsetting of established ideas of chronology once the details have been established. As for the necessity of a 2 1/2 hour flight of the Philistines to Palestine, the time of wave travel, Minoan refugees certainly started leaving Crete long before the seismic waves crashed on Crete. Earthquakes and ash fall over 50-100 years as well as warfare with the mainland were certainly enough to start a Cretan exodus well before the waves inundated the Egyptian army and saved the Israelites at Sebchael-Bardawil.

Finley states, “Never mind that for every Greek the Pillars of Heracles meant Gibraltar and nothing else or that Galanopoulos cannot adduce a single text for his alternative.” Galanopoulos has in fact adduced Plato, himself, who has the priests of Sais say to Solon, “and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the pillars of Heracles;…” Perhaps for every Greek after Solon, the straits meant Gibraltar but Plato implies that before that time the connection was unknown. Indeed Herodotus is the earliest writer to mention the pillars and Homer and Hesiod notably say nothing about them.

Finley asks, “What is it that prompts scientists capable of precise and rigorous work in their own disciplines to career about in other fields of inquiry where they lack the knowledge, the tools of analysis, or even common sense?” He offers no answer. This statement, I suppose, expresses the attitude which pervades Finley’s remarks. I suggest that this careering about, which he apparently fails to understand, is responsible for a great deal of progress and often includes injection of knowledge new to the field. Man’s organization of his knowledge into disciplines is hardly static as Finley evidently would prefer to have it.

Throughout his remarks, Finley dogmatizes his opinion, shared by some other classical scholars, that “the Atlantis myth was altogether a Platonic invention.” I disagree with this assessment. Finley writes “that in the ‘Timaeus’ Plato took pains to indicate that Solon never wrote such a poem.” The passages, which he paraphrases in part to support this contention, when read in their entirety, yield quite the opposite interpretation, that Solon did indeed start his poem and that all concerned considered the tale as basically historical fact and transmitted from Egypt by Solon. I quote from Timaeus (20). “Yes, Amyrander, if Solon had only, like other poets, made poetry the business of his life, and had completed the tale which he brought with him from Egypt, and had not been compelled, by reason of the factions and troubles which he found stirring in this country when he came home, to attend to other matters, in my opinion he would have been as famous as Homer and Hesiod, or any poet.” We should not forget here that much of the writings of Homer and Hesiod are now considered to be based on history.

Later in Timaeus (26), Plato has Critias say, “I imparted my recollections to my friends in order to refresh my memory, and during the night I thought about the words and have nearly recovered them all. Truly, as is often said, those lessons which we have learned as children make a wonderful impression on our memories, for I am not sure that I could remember all that I heard yesterday, but I should not be much surprised if I forgot any of these things which I have heard very long ago. I listened to the old man telling them, when a child, with great interest at the time; he was very ready to teach me, and I asked him about them a great many times, so that they were branded into my mind in ineffaceable letters.” In Critias (113), Critias is made to say further, “Solon, who was intending to use the tale for his poem, made an investigation into the meaning of the names, and found that the early Egyptians in writing them down had translated them into their own language, and he recovered the meaning of the several names and retranslated them, and copied them out again in our language. My great-grandfather, Dropidas, had the original writing, which is still in my possession, and was carefully studied by me when I was a child.”

A debate on whether Plato “reported” or created his history out of whole cloth, which is based on internal evidence alone, is endless. Scholars have played this game for centuries. I have delved into it above because it is a part of the picture, but the key evidence is external, the catastrophic eruption of Thera.

James W. Mavor, Jr.

Woods Hole, Massachusetts

(M.I. Finley’s comment on Mr. Mavor’s letter appears on page 51.)

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