Why Archaeologists Aren’t Looking For Atlantis


No one is looking for Atlantis because everyone low-key understands that the depths of the ocean are scary and best left alone.

If that’s not a good enough reason for you, though, here’s another one – because according to archaeologists, it never existed in the first place.

If that’s true, though, why do so many people think it did? Why have hundreds, if not thousands, of folks spent years searching for its real-life location?

Experts say it’s a combination of disinformation, pseudoarchaeology, conspiracy theories, and other race-based factors, so…believing doesn’t seem exactly harmless.

This symbol of a long-lost utopia has become one of the most dangerous conspiracy theories around by sowing a deep distrust in science, and by encouraging intense white supremacist rhetoric.

Plato first wrote a few paragraphs about Atlantis, and his descriptions have long-endured. Ph.D. archaeology student Stephanie Halmhofer theorizes about why.

“The funny thing about Atlantis is when it was originally mentioned by Plato, he really didn’t write very much about it. Just a few small paragraphs. But this city he paints this picture of is just such an incredible place, you know, these massive palaces and gold everywhere and silver and dolphin statues…I mean, who wouldn’t want that to be a real place?”

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the “myth” really emerged in a way that carries on today, and archaeologist Flint Dibble told IFLScience that he believes the mystery is what makes the idea of finding it so romantic.

Halmhofer thinks that the harder the modern times, the more willing people are to believe in something beautiful and perfect from the past. People are looking for answers, or a way out of their current situation, and myths provide that escape.

“It’s like an escape from reality, even though to folks it is a reality. Atlantis seems like it’s a pretty amazing place. So I understand kind of why people are wanting it to be a thing.”

Dibble chimed in on that point-of-view, too.

“We live in a period of catastrophism, as people are worried about climate change, or many other problems in the world, nuclear weapons and things like that. And so I think there’s a certain appeal of catastrophe stories as well.”

For what it’s worth, almost everyone in the field believes Plato’s Atlantis was meant to be an allegory for the Athens that people imagined came before the one they were living in currently.

In it, he warns against believing in a utopia in order to point toward the beauty of the republic.

Scientists back up this claim by offering this evidence: there are no other contemporary writers who mention Atlantis, and there are no surviving pieces of artwork or pottery that do, either. A nation like that, waging a way like Plato described, would have surely been mentioned or depicted somewhere else.

It wasn’t until the 1870s when Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian mystic, wrote The Secret Doctrine as part of her religious movement, called Theosophy.

In it, she listed Atlanteans as one of the seven root races of humanity.

Former U.S. congressman Ignatius Donnelly jumped on the train in 1882, publishing Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, in which he depicted Atlantis as some kind of Eden.

Thus was the beginning of “Atlantaology,” an ideology that Dibble says would encourage a dark turn as it began with the idea that real ancient civilizations (non-white ones, of course) were unable to achieve sophisticated existence without help from Atlanteans.

“It’s all modern mythology. It’s based off very clearly not reading Plato closely. And of course, at the time these historians and philosophers were writing, there’s not much archaeology around, archaeology is just starting. Obviously now, 150 years later the archaeological evidence shows nill, it’s very clear, and a close reading of the context of Plato’s dialogues shows that they’re just flipping it on its head to make their own modern mythmaking.”

Not only is there no archaeological evidence for the existence of Atlantis, but there’s also evidence that does show that it could not have.

Not so for pseudoarchaeology, which twists the scientific method by gathering data and then cherry-picking results to fit an established narrative, which is what Halmhofer says happens all the time with regard to Atlantis.

“It’s not that the information folks are using is necessarily wrong or not factual. But they’re pulling facts out of that context, and giving it a new context. It’s largely that – taking facts out of context, drawing a bunch of different facts together to create this new story – rather than just looking at them in their context and saying ‘what is this telling me?’ and being willing to change our mind depending on what we see. That’s a big part of archaeology.”

She also points out that we need to be careful about generalizations, even if the ideology behind Atlantis can spread racist sentiments, promote historical and cultural appropriation, and encourage nationalism.

“I think that the core of pseudo archaeological theories is problematic, what they’re built out of and around is problematic. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every single person who adheres to them or falls into them is really terrible. Not everybody who believes in Atlantis is a neo-Nazi. Atlantis is just very attractive to neo-Nazis.”

Particularly in the U.S., pseudoarchaeology is clearly linked with white supremacy. It’s no coincidence, Halmhofer asserts, that the rise in interest in Atlantis coincides with America’s struggle to affirm identity.

The same goes for the Spanish explorers who needed a way to explain sophisticated and complex cities and societies in Central and South America – they told themselves survivors from Atlantis must have come and shown them how to build and to act.

“Pseudoarchaeology, at its core, is very racist and very colonialist. You’re constantly telling these folks that they could not have done what they’ve done without intervention from Atlantis, or extraterrestrials, so that’s the problematic core.”

Nazis did something similar, claiming this “last civilization” would reveal the source of the “Aryan” race.

She thinks scientists need to speak up online about not only the dangers of pseudoarchaeology but to call out people who are mis-using their findings.

Dibble agrees, and also believes the media needs to watch how they report things, as well, by not playing up any mystery or danger when reporting on archaeological finds.

In short, there is no Atlantis, Aztec, and Mayan civilizations that were not helped by aliens (and neither were the Egyptians who built the pyramids), and as with most things, you should always do some thinking on who theories impact before you speak.

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