Freund believes that, because Plato says that the city of Atlantis was located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (or what has long been known as the Straits of Gibraltar) and that it was destroyed by a natural disaster, it’s only reasonable to look for it in a marsh in southern Spain. This is also the only theory to which Rainer Kühne, who has written extensively on Atlantis, subscribes. Like Freund, Kühne, who has been interested in Atlantis since he first heard of it from a Donald Duck cartoon when he was a young boy, argues that Plato’s text directs us to look to southern Spain. He also believes that the catastrophe described by Plato was the one from history that took place 1,200 years before Plato’s writing. (When asked how he reconciles this with the fact that the text says that Atlantis existed 9,000 years ago, Kühne retorts that there were no calendars back then.)
Still others apply the Atlantis name to searches that have nothing to do with Plato’s story. Part of this is because, as professor Harold Tarrant of Australia’s University of Newcastle explains to me, “it’s the only name we’ve got” that works as such an appealing archaeological marketing technique—hence, “Brazil’s Atlantis,” which has nothing to do with the ancient legend and was discovered in May of this year. Nickell concurs that scientists are “willing to use a metaphor from fiction or fantasy” to popularize their findings and give them an air of mystery.
But part of it, Tarrant continues, is that other names are attached to specific geological places. They can be found exactly once. On the other hand, “ancient geography is sufficiently imprecise to make one suspect it could have been almost anywhere.”
Nickell says that those who look for Atlantis and encourage others to do the same are just stirring up mystery. Which is, for Atlantis-bound adventurers, the whole point: People love mysteries and the idea that they can be the ones to solve them. If Atlantis could be anywhere, that means it can be everywhere. If anyone could stumble upon the true Atlantis, then everyone can.
Tarrant doesn’t necessarily believe that’s such a bad thing. It gets people underwater, exploring. And anyway, myths were always supposed to be malleable, to be passed down and changed and shaped by whatever time in which they were told.
“There’s no harm,” Tarrant cheekily notes, “in doing a little perpetuating of the myth yourself.”
More from Slate’s series on the future of exploration: Is the ocean the real final frontier, or is manned sea exploration dead? Why are the best meteorites found in Antarctica? Can humans reproduce on interstellar journeys? Why do we celebrate the discovery of new species but keep destroying their homes? Who will win the race to claim the melting Arctic—conservationists or profiteers? Why don’t travelers ditch Yelp and Google in favor of wandering? What can exploring Google’s Ngram Viewer teach us about history? How did a 1961 conference jump-start the serious search for extraterrestrial life? Why are liminal spaces—where urban areas meet nature—so beautiful?
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.