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08 July 2010 @ 11:38 am
Atlantis: The Evidence  
We only ended up watching one programme last night - J was (very) late back from karate and then when I switched the TV on (while he was finishing reading his email etc) I got sucked into watching the end of the Germany/Spain semi-final. Missed the goal, tho - tuned in just after that. It seemed like everywhere the ball was, there was the whole of the Spanish team ... which I guess isn't quite how it's supposed to work (surely defence should be vaguely at the defence end of the pitch most of the time?) but it was certainly working out for the Spanish.

As that took us up to nearly half-nine we didn't really have time to watch more than one thing, so we picked a programme Bettany Hughes had recently done as a Timewatch special on Atlantis. While she touched on the obsession with the story that stretches into the modern day (and includes the alien-colonisation nuts) she was really looking at whether or not Plato's original story was entirely an invention of his or if there was some historical event that he was drawing on for his background. The story is a morality tale for the Athens of Plato's time, and Hughes concedes that he could have made it all up - a complete work of fiction. But she explores the possibility that he was actually basing it on tales handed down about the eruption at Thera (also called Santorini) a thousand or so years earlier. The geography of the island is certainly similar to that in Plato's tale, and the eruption & subsequent tsunami were spectacular enough to be immortalised in stories for hundreds of years afterwards.

Thera was inhabited by an advanced civilisation by Bronze Age standards, with close links to the Minoans on Crete. The city that was buried by the volcano is being excavated & they've found large buildings of 2 or 3 stories with lots of windows and beautiful wall paintings. There seems to have generally been a high standard of living, not just for an elite but for most of the city. Thera's position in the Aegean sea made it an important trade centre, and via Crete (I think this is what she said) it had links to the whole of the Bronze Age Mediterranean & Middle Eastern world. As with the Minoans they held bulls as sacred animals, and this is one of the details in Plato's description of his Atlantean civilisation. As well as showing us some of the excavations & reconstructions of Bronze Age Thera the programme also gave us context by showing us a bit of Knossos & some information about the Minoans - a taster of the info we'd seen in the Bettany Hughes programme about Crete & the Minoans that we watched a few months ago.

Thera erupted in ~1620BC (I think that's what she said in this programme, I've just noticed I've got 1530BC written down before, my memory clearly sucks either this time or last time or both). She showed us a quarry on Thera where you can clearly see the line of the ground level of Bronze Age Thera, covered by 30 or 40 foot of volcanic debris, which the expert said would mostly have covered the island in 3 or 4 hours. It wasn't entirely sudden tho - first there is evidence of small amounts of ash & earthquakes for a few months before the actual eruption. This may be why there were no bodies found (so far) in the city that's being excavated - they may have had time to flee - but one of the archaeologists thinks that this is implausible and that eventually we'll discover refugee camps full of people who fled the city after the earthquakes, but were remaining nearby and trying to rebuild. Then the actual eruption went off and everyone on the island at the time would have died. To put it into context the programme compared it to the Roman period eruption of Vesuvius, Thera was about ten times bigger than this, and the modern day eruption of Mount St. Helens in the 1980s (Thera was 100 times bigger than this). Awe-inspiringly big, and the island was not inhabited again for hundreds of years - definitely the sort of thing that you'd tell stories about.

Of course it didn't just affect Thera itself - there's evidence of ash throughout the Mediterranean & Middle East. And evidence of effects on plant growth at least as far away as Ireland. And after the eruption itself there were devastating tsunami, which may have started the collapse of the Minoan civilisation - Crete being slap-bang in the way of the waves. Again the experts compared it to more familiar disasters to give us a sense of scale - the destruction on Crete would be on the same order as the destruction in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. And this may give us some of the destroyed-by-water part of the Atlantis story, no-one on Thera survived, but in Crete and other places round the Aegean sea the survivors would tell of the sea rising up to swallow the land.

Obviously, this is all circumstantial evidence - Plato wasn't writing history, at best it is (as she said) "history by accident". She did trot out one expert in seeking the truth behind tales of the ancient world, but there wasn't time in the programme for him to do himself justice so that came across as "of course it's possible, this old dude says so and he's an expert", which was a shame. But I definitely came away convinced that stories about this appalling, world-shattering disaster could have been the original inspiration for Plato's story, even if it's hard to see how you could find hard evidence that it really was.
 
 
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