Was there a real Atlantis?

Plato was the first (and only) person to give an account of the sinking of Atlantis 9,000 years before. Was it allegory or fact? See pictures of ancient Greece.

Sometimes Plato can be irritating, especially if you're one of those people dedicated to uncovering the lost civilization of Atlantis. He wrote of its destruction some 9,000 years ago, but unfortunately for modern historians, he didn't tell us much. Was it a continent? Was it a city? Plato can be maddeningly vague. He also has a tendency to muddy the waters by weaving literary license with fact. Characters he wrote of were real people -- for example, Socrates, his teacher -- but Plato inserted his own words. After all, he was a philosopher, not a documentarian.

Such is the case with his description of Atlantis. In his book "Timaeus," the classical Greek philosopher tantalizingly places the location of the lost civilization in a real place, the Pillars of Hercules [source: Krystek]. This is what we now call the Strait of Gibraltar, off the coast of Spain. On the other hand, he loses some credibility when he mentions that the city was also populated by blood descendants of the sea and earthquake god Poseidon.

But perhaps it was never Plato's intent to deceive or to challenge others to search for the lost city (continent?). Perhaps it wasn't Atlantis that was lost to the ages, but Plato's intent to present the story as allegory. At any rate, people have taken the ball and run with it.

What Plato described -- a ringed lost city that was advanced in architecture, art and technology and was overwhelmed 9,000 years ago by a wave sent by Poseidon after its inhabitants had grown too wicked -- dovetailed nicely with the interests in archaeology and the occult that converged in the West in the late 19th century. In 1882, those interests were officially taken over by fringe dwellers when author, politician and scientist Ignatius Donnelly published his book," Atlantis, the Antediluvian World." Since then, Atlantis' legend has grown more fantastic: Plato was confused; the residents were aliens, not descended from gods; the city's advanced technology reached into the metaphysical and energy crystals in the drowned Atlantis accounting for mysterious activity in the Bermuda Triangle. Atlantis is in the Caribbean. Atlantis is in the South China Sea. Atlantis is in Switzerland.

Psychic Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet of Virginia Beach, was deeply involved in the occultization of Atlantis. He predicted that some of the city would rise off Bimini, or the western end of the Bahamas. Indeed in 1968, a diver discovered an underwater rock formation that's now known as the Bimini Road. Whether it's man-made or natural is still in question, but at any rate, the discovery reignited interest in the lost city.

As far out as the legend of Atlantis has grown, some archaeologists have quietly continued looking for something like it. Perhaps Atlantis was real -- or some approximation of it, at least.

The Terrible Fate of Helike

One of the many shared similarities between Atlantis and Helike: Both were centers for the worship of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and of earthquakes.
One of the many shared similarities between Atlantis and Helike: Both were centers for the worship of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and of earthquakes.

Probably the most forthright clue that Plato fabricated Atlantis is that he is the only person to give an account of it. Prior to his tale, Atlantis hadn't been mentioned before and none of his contemporaries describe the legendary city either. But this is not to say that there aren't accounts of a location that very closely parallels Plato's description of Atlantis. There are well-documented descriptions of a real place named Helike, which suffered a fate much like that of Atlantis.

The coastal city of Helike, located on the Gulf of Corinth in Greece, was the seat of power of the 12-city Achaean League. The city was hundreds of years old by the time Plato rose to prominence; it was wealthy, it controlled shipping in the area and it had established its own colonies in other areas like Italy [source: Helike Project].

It was also a major center for the worship of Poseidon, the god whom Plato described as the patron of Atlantis. Like Plato's lost city, Helike featured a prominent and famous statue of the god.

For five days in December 373 B.C., witnesses in the area noticed that small animals like snakes, mice and insects were migrating en masse away from the coast and to the mountains that form the southern border of the Helike Delta. Indeed, earthquake researchers have noted an apparent ability among some animals to sense an impending quake and attempt to escape the area. This held true for Helike as well. In the middle of the night on the fifth day, a major earthquake struck the area, followed by an enormous tsunami from the Gulf of Corinth. In a matter of minutes, the city of Helike was overcome by the sea, just as Plato described Atlantis.

At dawn, a group of rescuers amassed and hurried to help the residents, but there was no one to save; the town was ruined by an earthquake and submerged beneath the sea. Ten ships from Sparta that had been moored just offshore had vanished. Only the treetops of Poseidon's tree grove still poked out from the water's surface [source: Gidwitz]. Beneath the water, the statue of Poseidon built by the cult that worshipped him still stood erect. Local fishermen reported catching their nets on it frequently.

And while the legend of the city and knowledge of its fate persisted, Helike did eventually become lost.

The Peculiarity of the Helike Delta: Making Lost Cities

Pompeii, Italy (shown above), was an incredible archeological find, a city frozen in time. Researchers looking for ancient Helike hoped to find a "Greek Pompeii" in the city. They found that and a "Bronze Age Pompeii" as well.
Pompeii, Italy (shown above), was an incredible archeological find, a city frozen in time. Researchers looking for ancient Helike hoped to find a "Greek Pompeii" in the city. They found that and a "Bronze Age Pompeii" as well.

It's almost as if the Helike Delta was custom-made to produce lost cities. The area provides an attractive site for human habitation: the Gulf of Corinth offers quick transportation and an enormous source of food. The three rivers that form the delta bring fresh water from the mountains and a source of irrigation for crops. The warm climate makes living comparatively easy for a subtropical species like Homo sapiens. It's an intuitive place for people to live.

The area is also plagued by tectonic activity. Two separate faults run parallel through the area and they are capable of violent movement. Geological evidence from the quake that ruined Helike shows that the earth rose 6 feet (2 meters) along one side of the fault line and sunk the delta about 9 feet (3 meters) lower [source: Soter]. These same quakes can generate massive tsunamis, which come ashore at as much as 20 miles per hour (36 km/h) at heights of 100 feet (about 33 meters) [source: Hyperphysics].

Coastal areas around the world are subject to this combination of violent forces, but those three rivers that form the Helike Delta give the area a peculiar characteristic. The rivers bring silt to the coast and over time have extended it further and further into the Gulf. One oft-repeated example is of a house that was built along the shore in 1890; it is now a thousand feet (304.8 meters) inland [source: Gidwitz]. In a single night an earthquake ruined the city of Helike, a giant wave plunged it underwater, and over the centuries the rivers have buried it.

But the researchers who discovered ancient Helike after 12 years of digging also found that this ravage of nature happened more than once. The attractiveness of the area and its attendant destructiveness formed a cycle where humans established a city, nature removed it and, as the passage of time cultivated fecklessness, another city was founded. Archaeologists found evidence of lost cities from the Byzantine period, which ended in the 15th century A.D., beneath that lay a ruined Roman city, from between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. Beneath the Roman ruins lay Helike, which was destroyed in 373 B.C. But the archaeologists were astounded to find an even earlier ruined settlement from the Bronze Age of around 2600 to 2300 B.C., The group excavating the site also found signs of human habitation even further back, into the prehistoric Neolithic period, which began as far back as 12,000 years ago.

In all, six distinct occupation horizons have been discovered at Helike. People had been living in the Helike Delta for a long time, and nature had been destroying their settlements and then preserving the ruins.

Finding Ancient Helike

Scores of amphorae, large vessels or jugs, from the Bronze Age were discovered in a store house in a settlement that predated Helike by several thousand years.
Scores of amphorae, large vessels or jugs, from the Bronze Age were discovered in a store house in a settlement that predated Helike by several thousand years.

In much the same way as Atlantis, Helike long stood as a legendary lost city. But the people who dedicated themselves to finding it had a distinct advantage over their counterparts who search for Atlantis: good documentation.

For several centuries following its sudden destruction, Helike remained submerged but visible, which made it a bit of an early dark tourism attraction. For centuries travelers and writers visited the area and reported back about what they saw. These ancient Greeks and Romans even documented the location of the city in stadia, a unit of distance equal to roughly 600 feet (183 meters) [source: Vincent, et al]. Even with the rivers extending the shoreline outward for the last two millennia, all of this made the prospect of finding Helike easy -- compared to, say, Atlantis at least. But in practice the city proved hard to locate. The legendary Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos made finding Helike the obsession of his late career, and when he died in the 1974, his search had managed to bring the lost city of Helike into broader awareness. In 1988, two Cornell professors began searching for ancient Helike in earnest.

The search used sidescan sonar equipment to compile an undersea map of the area just off the coast of Helike in the Gulf of Corinth. They found an ancient seawall buried beneath the sediment, as well what may be the ten Spartan ships that were overwhelmed by the tsunami that destroyed Helike that night in 373. But no sign of the city turned up. It wasn't until one of the team leaders, a Greek woman, reexamined the old reports of contemporary Greeks and found that previous searches had been misled by an inaccurate translation for a body of water. Rather than being submerged in the gulf, Helike had been swallowed up by an inland lagoon.

Turning their search onto land, the project team managed to find first the ruined Roman city, along with intact Roman cemeteries and the Roman road that ancient travelers used to view Helike. Just 12 feet (3.66 meters) beneath the surface of the farmland in the area was the lost city of Helike. Indeed, when they examined the dirt, they found evidence that the now dry dirt had once been the silt of a lagoon.

Excavations have turned up industrial buildings, kilns and looms, intersecting streets flanked by buildings, the city's coins featuring a bust of Poseidon in near mint condition, a storehouse of Bronze-age jugs, some still with their contents intact, Greek cemeteries and lots of pottery and tools. Most exciting, however, is the promise of more: Ground-penetrating radar has shown that there are more buildings to be found, that the bulk of Helike still lays undiscovered. What's more, it appears to be largely intact and frozen in time in that terrible moment when it was lost.

To think that finding Helike will call off the search for Atlantis is folly. The search for the legendary lost city continues. One American archaeologist believes he's found the lost city in Spain, 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) inland [source: Howard]. Ironically, the discovery of Helike supports the idea that if it does exist, the lost city could be found submerged in soil rather than sea.

Author's Note

I grew up ravenous for information on the fantastic, like ghosts and lost civilizations like Atlantis. I was equally interested in archaeology, it being the first word I could spell that impressed friends and teachers alike. So the concept of an actual lost city has long been of great interest to me. It combines the fantastic gruesomeness of an entire city being lost with its inhabitants trapped within as the earth swallows it with the thrill of being discovered intact millennia later by archaeologists. I was engrossed by stories and photos of Pompeii from the first time I heard of it and it was the same when I recently came across a small entry on Helike. The more I dug, the more amazing the story became -- it being the possible and likely inspiration for Atlantis; there being more than one lost city in the same spot, separated by centuries. I wanted to write about it, initially as a blog post, but then I realized that there was too much good stuff here for a short post. That initial ambition became this article and then later the companion Stuff You Should Know podcast episode on the topic.

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