A recent National Geographic special on finding the lost city of Atlantis left people wondering whether this mythical place actually did exist. Could there really have been a city built on concentric rings of land and water?

Many accounts say Atlantis ruled the ancient world 11,000 years ago with its amazing grasp of science, architecture, and civil engineering. But it might just have been a fantasy city.


Supposedly, Atlantis was built on nested circular islands surrounded by harbors. The city grew so powerful that it ruled large parts of Europe and Africa roughly in 9600 BC. Eventually, its armies attempted to conquer Athens, and failed. Then it suddenly sank beneath the ocean in a single night - probably due to a tidal wave. Its beauty and power at a time when few cities existed yet turned it into a legend. More likely, it was always a legend.

University of South Florida archaeologist Philip Reeder worked with a team of scientists featured on National Geographic's special, who are trying to excavate an area in Doñana National Park, a coastal marsh area in Spain. And according to a story from the university where he works, even Reeder isn't convinced that Atlantis has been found, though he's hopeful:

Since the 1920s, explorers have speculated that the area might be the location of the former grand city of Atlantis, said by Plato to be elaborately built on three concentric circles with harbors separating the rings of land. Two rectangular temples, one dedicated to Poseidon, were to be in the city's center. Given the seismic activity in and around that part of the world, the idea that an earthquake may have set off a tsunami that drowned the city is eerily plausible, especially given recent events.

Interest in the legend's possible connection to this area was revived nearly a decade ago when satellite images produced by a German scientist of the dry marsh picked up on what appeared to be circular structures buried not too far below the ground. Reeder points out that adding to the weight of evidence is the discovery of possible "tribute cities" 200 kilometers to the northeast in Spain built in the image of Atlantis by those believed to have escaped the calamity.

Drilling very small holes of just a few inches across, the explorers were able to detect the pockets of methane gas and wood about 13 meters below ground, Reeder said, indicating the decomposition of large amounts of organic material. Sensor readings also indicate anomalies underground, but exactly what that means requires much further testing.

The anomalies could represent layers of decayed adobe bricks from a buried city, Reeder said. Proof could come from excavation and chemical analysis of materials unearthed through those very small drill holes. Ground-penetrating radar often used to locate large and deeply-buried objects and spaces didn't work on the site because the high level of salt in the soil interrupted the signal, Reeder added. In the meantime, their work has given the legend of Atlantis new life. For his part, Reeder isn't drawn into the hype and won't let his imagination run wild either.

"Given the preponderance of the evidence on the geophysical plots and lines, I feel there is definitely something there," he said, peering over his wire-rimmed glasses in a manner any good adventure novelist might script. "Is it Atlantis? I can't say."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Consider the source of our information about Atlantis. Basically, the place has always been a rumor - even the earliest recorded tales of it are just tales. Plato wrote about it thousands of years after it had been destroyed, so taking his word for it would be like somebody in the future trying to learn about the Middle Ages by reading Game of Thrones.

Here is a concise, footnoted summary of what the historical record tells us about Atlantis, compiled by Prof. Trace Rhodes and Dr. A.D. Hawke:

Plato [1] provides our earliest and most complete record [2] of Atlantis [3]. If real [4], it was a large island [5] under Poseidon's care [6] in the Atlantic Ocean [7] around 9600 BCE [8]. Atlantis quickly became a rich [9] maritime power [10] and an advanced [11] empire [12]. After Atlantis tried to conquer Athens [13], Zeus destroyed [14] the island with water [15]. Atlantis has become a modern symbol for utopias [16], exotic resorts [17] and fallen civilizations [18]. Although no physical evidence survives of Atlantis [19], the hunt for it [20] has spawned countless books, cartoons [21], Stargates [22] and the imaginations of countless generations still to come. [23]

I urge you to read the footnotes, which are in many ways the best part of this tongue-in-cheek scholarly summary. You can see them all here, on The Adventures of the Orange Monk.

Right now it doesn't seem likely that there ever was an Atlantis, but that doesn't mean the myth won't live on. And why not? It's a great story, and Stargate: Atlantis even gave it a pretty cool modern twist. In two thousand years, people might be looking at Stargate as a legitimate source for information about the city, too.