Monday, February 14, 2005


In ocean of theories, Atlantis keeps our imaginations afloat


The Sentinel
By Lisa Roberts
February 13, 2005

Atlantis is a little like Elvis -- rumored to have left the building but frequently sighted nonetheless.

In December, it surfaced in Tampa, when Dennis Brooks, a teacher in Hawaii, announced his theory: that the city of Atlantis was actually on Harbour Island in Tampa's Hillsborough Bay.

After studying Plato's writings on Atlantis, Brooks surmised that Atlantis and its Utopian society did not sink into the sea as the Greek philosopher described.

Using the descriptions and measurements found in Plato's writings, Brooks concluded North and South America made up the continent of Atlantis, that Florida was the plain of Atlantis, and that Harbour Island, a small residential island close to downtown Tampa, was the island of Atlantis.

Voila, one Lost Continent found. It wouldn't be the first time.

In November, researchers found Atlantis near Cyprus. Before that, it was thought to be the Greek island of Santorini. It also has been sighted off the coasts of Japan and Spain, and near Bimini in the Bahamas. It could be off Peru or Germany. Or in the Canary Islands or the Azores -- the list of location theories is almost as vast as the seas themselves.

As mysterious as Atlantis is, this much is known: It fascinates us. It ranks up there with UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot as one of the world's greatest head-scratchers.

"It's a good story, it's mysterious, it's like looking for the Holy Grail," says Karelisa Hartigan, professor of classics at the University of Florida. "I think any quest story is forever appealing."

In mythology, it's a shoo-in, the tale of the wealthy society wiped out about 11,000 years ago when it was swallowed by the sea, perhaps destroyed by a volcanic eruption, an earthquake or a tsunami.

News of its discovery -- wherever that might be at a given moment -- makes headlines around the world. We buy the book, we see the movie, we tune in for the documentary on the latest expedition. Fact or fiction, Atlantis is part of modern-day life -- even our vacations.

It is the subject of more than 2,000 books and numerous magazine articles and Web sites. We've watched its namesake space shuttle soar into the heavens. In Orlando, SeaWorld's Journey to Atlantis, a water flume/roller coaster ride, soaks riders as it plunges them into the legend.

The opulent Atlantis resort, on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, exhibits fanciful underwater archaeological "artifacts" in its lagoon.

Disney's animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire thrilled youngsters with the adventures of a team of archaeologists looking for a submerged city. And, in the latest pop-culture twist, country singer Jamie O'Neal draws upon its elusiveness: "A girl trying to find herself the perfect man," she croons, "is like trying to find Atlantis."

Harboring a hope The legend of Atlantis made its appearance about 2,400 years ago when Plato described it in the writings Timaeus and Critias. The philosopher described an island continent, a plain and a city, all of which he called Atlantis.

As a whole, Atlantis was a place of immense riches and abundant natural resources populated by a highly developed society.

Although some scholars -- among them, marine biologists, geologists, historians and archaeologists -- say the existence of Atlantis is a bunch of hooey, others devote their lives to finding it.

Brooks, a children's tutor in Honolulu, says he spent 20 years researching Plato's descriptions before coming forth with his theory.

"Every time I'd get away from the equator, it just couldn't happen any way else. That's what kept me concentrating on the Florida area," says Brooks, who posted his theory on his Web site, "The most baffling part about it was how Harbour Island could be so lush and pristine and shaped just like Plato's description after 11,000 years."

Baffling, indeed, considering present-day Harbour Island was shaped in part with sand dredged from Hillsborough Bay, says Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.

Despite that -- and the fact that Florida's coastline stretched from 60 to 80 miles farther west 11,000 years ago -- Kite-Powell doesn't dismiss Brooks' theory. "You know, people have kind of unusual ideas about some things. But who's to say? It's probably not true, but no one can say for sure something hasn't happened in a particular place.

The thing with history is that there's no proof one way or another exactly; you need documentation." Robert Sarmast, of Los Angeles, who coordinated a recent expedition to explore the sea bottom near Cyprus, announced in November it had found Atlantis 50 miles southeast of the Mediterranean island.

He backs the claim with three-dimensional maps of the sea bottom that depict, according to the expedition Web site, man-made structures such as "a wall, a walled hill summit and deep trenches -- plus old river beds -- in exactly the formation and proportions that Plato himself described for the Acropolis Hill of Atlantis City. . . ." "It was a year of our lives," says Sarmast, author of Discovery of Atlantis: The Startling Case for the Island of Cyprus.

"We spent half a million dollars on it, and we're not just pulling it out of thin air." Plato's cautionary tale? As a topic, Atlantis is very much a punching bag, the kind of place -- or figment of the imagination -- that sparks the type of verbal combat shared by The X Files' Scully and Mulder.

"I think it's a wonderful fairy tale, treasure-hunt story," says Richard Ellis, author of Imagining Atlantis, which examines the history and literature surrounding the search for Atlantis.

"Plato described Atlantis as bigger than Africa and Libya combined, which makes it difficult to lose it." "I think he [Plato] wanted to make a point of a powerful overextended civilization failing -- something we might pay attention to today," he says.

"To say it didn't exist is ludicrous," counters Sarmast. "These days people think of it as a myth, but they're really unfamiliar with the ancient world."

Ellis says Plato was probably trying to impart a lesson about a high-flying society that went wrong and was punished for it. "We will never know why Plato did this," he says.

"But as one of the great thinkers and writers of history, if he wanted to make a point about overextended civilizations, destroying one would be a way to do it." Sarmast thinks Plato was just passing out information.

When you read Plato's works, he says, "it really strikes you because it was not an allegory. Someone has seen the place and tried to explain for future generations what it looked like."

Hartigan, the University of Florida professor, says, "It could be all in the realm of Plato's imagination," but that because archaeology has found evidence of so many ancient civilizations, "we just can't throw it away."

"But if it did exist, most scholars agree that it's in the Aegean," she says. "If it is, it's Thera -- Santorini," a good portion of which was destroyed in a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago.

Dreams of riches Michael Smyth, an archaeology professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, says Atlantis' allure can be attributed to "three F words: fame, fortune and faith."

Those who search for Atlantis may dream of becoming rich or capturing the public's attention, he says. "They want to believe it so badly that they have a tendency to overlook what the actual evidence is," Smyth says. "People want to sell books and TV programs . . . so it's always going to be there, these motivations. And some people actually believe it, but these people believe in UFOs, ghosts. The more you want to believe it, the more you will."

As an archaeologist, Smyth says he looks for evidence "that supports such claims. Is there any? Not really." Sarmast, though, points out that new technology lets us probe places that had been impossible to reach. Until his expedition, "we haven't looked at the sea floor, so you can't say it [Atlantis] is or it isn't there. We're literally the first generation in history to see it. . . . No other generation has been able to look down there."

To naysayers, Sarmast says, "without being rude, I'd just have to tell them they need to do more homework."

But even critics never say never. "There're always possibilities," says Rollins' Smyth, "but we have to go with the best evidence we have now. I haven't seen anything from anybody that gives any credibility to Atlantis."


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