In The New York Review of Books for May 22, 1969, I took the opportunity, in reviewing Voyage to Atlantis by James W. Mavor Jr., to discuss at length (and dismiss) current efforts to historicize Plato’s myth of Atlantis. That old game has been revived with the recent discovery that the Aegean island of Santorini (ancient Thera) is a mere fragment which survived one of the greatest volcanic eruptions of all time, in about 1500 B.C. The explosion, the Atlanticists argue, was “remembered” in a mixed-up way, until Plato brought it back to consciousness in his myth.
Of the two books which have since appeared on the subject, the one by A. G. Galanopoulos, the seismologist who is the chief creator of the new Atlantis myth, and Edward Bacon, archaeological editor of the Illustrated London News, introduces some coherence to the story as presented by Mavor, but adds nothing else requiring comment (except for some marvelous photographs, not always relevant). J. V. Luce, on the other hand, is a competent and cautious classical scholar. Although I find his arguments and conclusions no more acceptable, I can recommend his book to anyone interested in the methods by which a Platonic myth is converted into a garbled historical reminiscence.
To examine either book properly would require repetition of most of what I wrote in my earlier review, to which I therefore refer. Here I will just elaborate a bit on two points. The first is that there was no written documentation available to Plato. Not even Luce himself is convinced by his weak attempt to suggest that there may have been. We must accept the fact that the Santorini eruption, a tremendous natural catastrophe occurring in a civilized society, failed to leave any mark on the rich legends and traditions of the Greek Bronze Age. That doesn’t bother me in the least, but scholars who persistently call upon “folk memory” in their search for a historical kernel beneath, say, Noah’s flood, might ponder Santorini carefully.
Second, Plato leaves no doubt that his interest in “Atlantis” centers on the social system he plants on the island. Modern Atlanticists therefore have to correlate that system with what we know (and often pretend to know) about a “society” of “Minoan” Crete, the Crete of the great palaces. The result is ludicrous, as the Galanopoulos-Bacon pages on the subject show. What they dare not do is draw the meaningful comparison, with Plato’s Athens and Plato’s critique of Athens in the Republic, for that at once disposes of too much of the “memory.”1
Santorini, one must immediately add, raises genuine and important problems, unrelated to the Atlantis nonsense. One is that of the impact on neighboring regions, particularly Crete and Egypt. The eruption occurred during the final period of the palace-age of Crete, which came to an end during the fifteenth century B.C. amid much physical destruction, abundantly evident in the archaeological record. Historians have made slow progress during the past half century in trying to explain the phenomenon, hindered as they are by the absence of written sources. Now some archaeologists suggest that Santorini offers the answer, thus avoiding the difficulties inherent in a historical explanation (which would have implications transcending the specific situation in Minoan Crete).
Important new evidence has just come out, at a conference held on the island in late September, and that perhaps warrants my returning to the subject here.2 It had previously been agreed, from the parallel with other great eruptions, such as that of Krakatoa in the strait between Java and Sumatra in 1883, and from vulcano-logical and sea-bed studies in the Aegean, that widespread damage followed from the Santorini explosion through two agencies, wind-spread ash and seismic sea-waves (tsunamis). The latter, as I reported in my review of Mavor, were believed to have hit Crete within minutes, Egypt within hours, with devastating effects. But the latest studies demonstrate that the tsunami effect of Santorini was actually slight, most of it directed to the southeastern coast of Greece and never touching Crete.
That undermines a good deal of the scientific argument about Crete in all the Atlanticist books, not to mention Galanopoulos’ anyway absurd idea that the opening of the Red Sea for the Hebrews was also a consequence of the eruption. The wind-blown ash, however, still remains as a possible agent of destruction. That ash from Santorini did reach Crete is demonstrated by pockets found in cores on the sea-bed. How thick was the deposit? That is the crucial question, since evidence from Icelandic volcanoes reveals that ash layers up to 10 cm in thickness permit rapid recovery. Unfortunately the ash is eventually washed away, leaving no certain traces. So we guess about the thickness of the deposit on Crete, about the effects of more or less rainfall, and about a dozen other things. But no guess has succeeded in explaining away the fact that the archaeologically attested destruction at Cnossus was much slighter than that at other sites. Cnossus was the most powerful center of Minoan Crete. What gave it immunity from wind-blown ash?
Nor is that all. The question of date now has to be looked at. When did Santorini blow up? Carbon-14 dating can only fix a set of limits, too wide for precise historical use. For the Santorini eruption, the best so far suggested is 1422 (or 1522) ± 100 B.C.3 The pottery found under the ash deposit at Akrotiri on Santorini (and very beautiful some of it is, too) helps to pinpoint the eruption within those limits. The report on the 1968 excavation, just published, concludes firmly that none of the finds can be dated later than 1500, thus fixing the eruption in the period 1525-1500 B.C.
On the other hand, the particular wave of Cretan destruction we are considering cannot be dated, again on the evidence of pottery, much before 1450 B.C. I am unable to make sense of the various efforts to bridge that fifty-year gap. And so we retain the view that the disruption of Minoan civilization was brought about by human activity (perhaps taking advantage of local earthquakes), more likely than not initiated from the Greek (Mycenaean) mainland. Whatever the harmful effects of Santorini ash on Crete, breakdown was not one. That is the answer one expects anyway. Man has shown an infinite capacity to survive natural catastrophes. Other things being equal, life resumes and recovers (as it did after the severe earlier earthquake in Crete, about 1700 B.C.). On the rare occasions when genuine social or political changes followed, the explanation will be found in society itself, not in a volcano.
December 4, 1969
See the convincing analysis by P. Vidal-Naquet, “Athènes et l’Atlantide,” in the Revue des études grecques, Vol. 77 (1964), pp. 420-44. ↩
I must thank Mr. Norman Hammond, archaeological correspondent of the London Times, who made his conference notes available to me. ↩
In a letter published elsewhere in this issue, Mr. Mavor protests my calling his 1522±100 date, given in an appendix, a misprint. If so, how does he explain the bewildering variety of other dates for the eruption scattered through his book? But then, what can one expect from anyone who is prepared to date the eruption around 1500 for Cretan purposes, and then to re-date the Cretan destruction (wholly without warrant) to 1300-1200 for the sake of the Exodus? ↩