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Atlantis was a Real Place
A Discussion by Dan Crisp

Part 3: Atlantis Revealed

In this final part of the essay, we will see how Critias does indeed give an accurate description of a real location, that we can easily discern today; and of the problem for ocean navigation caused when Atlantis was swallowed by the waves.

The Location of Atlantis (continued)

Looking towards the sea, but in the centre of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. [Crit.]
The country immediately about and surrounding the city was a level plain, itself surrounded by mountains which descended towards the sea; [Crit.]
The surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty, far beyond any which still exist, having in them also many wealthy villages of country folk, and rivers, and lakes, and meadows supplying food enough for every animal, wild or tame, and much wood of various sorts, abundant for each and every kind of work. [Crit.]

That is, we are looking for a plain situated approximately half way along the coast between the straits and either Scandinavia or the Equator. Examining the continental shelves, now flooded but formerly dry land, you will see there are indeed plains in both locations: in Africa at Guinea; and in Europe at the Celtic Shelf.

The higher ground that is still dry land would have constituted mountains surrounding the plain, in both the African case (Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone) and the European case (Ireland, England, France).

"Celebrated for their number and size and beauty" might suggest the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains to us, but we should not assume we share all our aesthetic sensibilities with the ancients. Indeed, if there were productive fields and forests, they could not have too precipitate and rugged. That is, we can imagine the British Isles and northern France to fit this description.

[The plain] was smooth and even, and of an oblong shape, extending in one direction three thousand stadia [555 km], but across the centre inland it was two thousand stadia [370 km]. This part of the island looked towards the south, and was sheltered from the north [Crit.]

Three thousand stadia is a close match for the length of both of our candidates, the African and European shelves. Both plains are oriented approximately east-west - that is, facing south - with the mountains to the north.

However, the Celtic Shelf also fits the 3:2 proportions; whereas the African candidate is narrower, more like 3:1, or less than a thousand stadia across.

Neither the southern aspect nor being sheltered from the north would be noteworthy for a plain in the tropics; but they would have been redeeming features for the Celtic Shelf, in its northern clime.

Hence, the Celtic Shelf is the only place that fits the description we have so far.

The whole country was said by him to be very lofty and precipitous on the side of the sea, [Crit.]
And beginning from the sea they bored a canal of three hundred feet in width and one hundred feet in depth and fifty stadia [9250 m] in length, which they carried through to the outermost zone [moat, encircling the city], making a passage from the sea up to this, which became a harbour, and leaving an opening sufficient to enable the largest vessels to find ingress. [Crit.]

It has been suggested that Antarctica best fits this description, being, on average, the highest of the continents; but Critias does not go that far. He only says it is steep at the sea front and about 10 storeys high (the canal was 100 feet deep); where there is no natural harbour, ships travelling the 9 km to the city via the canal. This is consistent with the level plain falling steeply into the sea at the edge of the Celtic Shelf.

...and dividing the island of Atlantis into ten portions, he gave to the first-born of the eldest pair his mother's dwelling and the surrounding allotment, which was the largest and best, and made him king over the rest; the others he made princes, and gave them rule over many men, and a large territory. And he named them all; the eldest, who was the first king, he named Atlas, and after him the whole island and the ocean were called Atlantic. [Crit.]

The Celtic Shelf does indeed represent about one tenth or more of the former coastal area between the straits and Scandinavia; and, being bathed in the Gulf Stream, it would have enjoyed favourable conditions, uncharacteristic of other regions at the same latitude, as Britain and Ireland do today.

There was an abundance of wood for carpenter's work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals. Moreover, there were a great number of elephants [mammoths?] in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all. Also whatever fragrant things there now are in the earth, whether roots, or herbage, or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived in that land; also the fruit which admits of cultivation, both the dry sort, which is given us for nourishment and any other which we use for food--we call them all by the common name of pulse, and the fruits having a hard rind, affording drinks and meats and ointments, and good store of chestnuts and the like, which furnish pleasure and amusement, and are fruits which spoil with keeping, and the pleasant kinds of dessert, with which we console ourselves after dinner, when we are tired of eating--all these that sacred island which then beheld the light of the sun, brought forth fair and wondrous and in infinite abundance. With such blessings the earth freely furnished them; [Crit.]

Stretching from southern Spain to Scandinavia, Atlantis would have encompassed a spectrum of environments, supporting a wide variety of produce; and many non-indigenous species brought by international trade will have found somewhere to thrive.

In the next place, they had fountains, one of cold and another of hot water, in gracious plenty flowing; and they were wonderfully adapted for use by reason of the pleasantness and excellence of their waters. They constructed buildings about them and planted suitable trees, also they made cisterns, some open to the heaven, others roofed over, to be used in winter as warm baths; there were the kings' baths, and the baths of private persons, which were kept apart; and there were separate baths for women, and for horses and cattle, and to each of them they gave as much adornment as was suitable. [Crit.]
Twice in the year they gathered the fruits of the earth--in winter having the benefit of the rains of heaven, and in summer the water which the land supplied by introducing streams from the canals. [Crit.]

There was certainly no shortage of water, as would have been the case on the Celtic Shelf, in the midst of the Gulf Stream and surrounded by glacial melt water, managed by the system of canals and irrigation ditches Critias describes.

...for in those days the Atlantic was navigable... [Tim.]

Although the legend says there was sea-borne trade, we have no reason to believe these ancient ancestors had mastered sailing the open ocean, which was accomplished only in recent history. Even the Vikings are not credited with Atlantic-crossing so much as Atlantic-skirting. Long distances were covered by sailing close to the shore or making short hops from island to island. In this sense, for the Atlantic to be navigable means for it to be possible to sail a great distance into it, possibly to the other side: passing Atlantis, Iceland, Greenland and the larger, more numerous islands exposed by the fallen sea level. Perhaps the ice cap itself bridged the land and allowed a continuous passage across the North Atlantic.

This view is entirely compatible with the notion of travel to, or even settlement of, the Americas in very ancient times. In fact, they must have been there to know the continents - whose Pacific reaches they never saw - were there, framing the Atlantic Ocean. But notice that the shores they would have visited are now submerged continental shelves. Whatever evidence there may have been of the presence of Atlanteans and their contemporaries in the Americas is likely very hard to find now.

But afterwards [after the war] there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your [Athenian] warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. [Tim.]

Critias has already described the warrior class living apart from other Athenians, on the Acropolis; and the natural springs that once flowed from within it, but were choked off by earthquakes; so this is probably where the Athenian "warlike men in a body sank into the earth". That is to the say, the catastrophe that claimed Atlantis was also felt at the other end of the Mediterranean. This tells of the earthquakes and violent floods on a huge scale that are now becoming accepted.

For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island. [Tim.]
...and when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, [Atlantis] became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean. [Crit.] [Crit.]

Atlantis was now covered by the sea, but not to any great depth: too shallow to sail over safely.

This would suggest a sudden relative change in sea level of about 100 feet, the depth of the canal running from the city to the sea. Indeed, Koudriavtsev references some sea level data including a rapid rise of 35 metres at about the right time.

Since the coast they used to follow, past Atlantis on their way to the rest of the ocean, had disappeared; and it was impossible to reach and follow the new coast line (now western France); the whole Atlantic Ocean had become, to them, innavigable.


My aim with this essay has been to see whether Critias, in the words of Plato (or Plato in the words of Critias) painted a consistent picture and, if so, of what. Prior to its writing, for all I knew, several hypotheses, including Koudriavtsev's, were readily compatible with the account. I have found that, on the contrary, the account is unequivocal (based on Jowett's translation at least):

Critias (or Plato) says the kingdoms of Atlantis stretched from southern Spain, at the Pillars of Heracles, northwards along the continental shelf, skirting around the British Isles, as far as Scandinavia; with the great plain and capital city on the Celtic Shelf.

Now, we should like to prove whether what he says is true! Of course, this is easier said than done, because the English Channel must be one of the worst places to conduct marine archaeology; and that is where definitive evidence of the truth of Critias' account, if indeed there is any, is to be found. If the Celtic Shelf yields a city on a hill, with concentric harbours, on a rectangular plain enclosed by an enormous ditch and criss-crossed by canals, I don't think anyone could deny that Atlantis had been found.

In the meantime, those who have a mind to might like to...

  1. Find out what happened to Koudriavtsev's planned expedition of 1998 to the Little Sole Bank on the edge of the Celtic Shelf;
  2. Study the geology of the Celtic Shelf and determine what the white and black building stones might have been and whether any red minerals matching the description of orichalcum are found there;
  3. Re-examine the evidence of Atlantis in Spain, France and Sweden;
  4. Investigate the connections between the "Celtic Shelf Hypothesis" and other legends of lost civilisations, King Arthur's Lyonnesse, Thule, the Titans and so on;
  5. Work out the relationship between Atlantis and the Cro-Magnon people, who settled in western Europe and were perhaps distinct from the people ranging across the rest of Europe; and determine whether they (or their ancestors) got there by crossing the straits;
  6. Compare and contrast the spread of agriculture in Europe immediately after the era of Atlantis with the situation in India and the Middle East in the same period;

This conclusion actually has very little implication for the many researchers who thought they had identified - or found - Atlantis in other locations around the world. If there are reasons to think advanced civilisations once thrived in South America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, India, Indonesia, etc., they are unaffected by the realisation that none of them was the land known to us as Atlantis. All we have done here is identify which of the fascinating and important researches into ancient mysteries refer to Atlantis and which refer to other, no less important cultures.

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