WEST HARTFORD – Anybody who has read Plato’s “Dialogues” or listened to ‘60s pop-star Donovan knows about Atlantis, the legendary island city that disappeared into the sea “in a single day and night of misfortune” some 3,000 years ago.
Those who read the Book of Jonah learn of Tarshish, the biblical equivalent of Timbuktu, the place at the farthest reaches of the known ancient world. It could take three years for trading ships to reach Israel from Tarshish, and it was the place Jonah was en route to in his panicked flight from God when his ship sank and he ended up in the belly of the whale.
It is possible that Atlantis and Tarshish have both been discovered, and on the same site.
That is the premise of a forthcoming book, “Finding ‘Tarlantis,’” by biblical archeologist Prof. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and the Maurice Greenberg Professor of History at the University of Hartford. Freund is also featured in “Finding Atlantis,” a new National Geographic Channel documentary, which follows a team of North American and Spanish scientists as they search for the ancient city. The film premieres on Sunday, Mar. 13, at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic channel.
Atlantis has fueled the popular and scientific imaginations for centuries. Even the Nazis were searching for Atlantis, says Freund, in an attempt to establish a connection to the oldest civilization in history. Today, no fewer than 20 countries claim to be the possible location of the ancient land, everywhere from Finland and Sweden to Bimini, Bolivia, and even Antarctica. Its discovery would be one of the most significant and astonishing in the archeological world, and yet, says Freund, some of the more obvious clues have been overlooked for thousands of years.
“If you take ancient literature seriously, though not necessarily literally, Plato says that Atlantis was ‘an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Hercules,’” he says. “In antiquity, the Straits of Gibraltar were known as the Pillars of Hercules. Plato also says that Atlantis once faced a city called ‘Gadara,’ which is the ancient name for modern Cádiz. So you don’t look in Finland, you look in southern Spain.”
Plato wrote that, during a day and a night, the port city of Atlantis sank into the sea as the result of a cataclysmic event; geological evidence at the Spanish excavation points to a tsunami or underwater earthquake, Freund says. Plato also described the “shoal of mud” that existed at the site centuries after the disaster.
There are other instances where literary reference and physical evidence coalesce, Freund says. In the book of Exodus, the breastplate of the high priest Aaron is described as being adorned with 12 precious stones, one for each of the 12 Israelite tribes. The Hebrew word used for the Tribe of Asher’s stone is “tarshish.” By the first century, natural geographers had discovered the stone in the area now known as southern Spain.
There are two linguistic clues that bolster the search in southern Spain: “The region has some really weird names,” Freund says. “’Al-Andalus or ‘Andalucia’ may preserve the name ‘Atlantis,’ and a part of the region is known as ‘Tartessos,’ which is thought to be Greek for ‘Tarshish.’” The people of the region were referred to as Tartessians.
In the early 1920s, Spanish archeologist Jorge Bonsor and German archeologist Adolph Schulten connected the dots and started looking for Tarshish in the Marisma de Hinojos marsh in southern Spain, part of the Coto Doñana National Park and one of the largest swamps in Europe. The 250-square-mile site, situated between the Pillars of Hercules and just south of Seville, shows evidence of having been a bay that was filled in with sediment after a natural environmental cataclysm, Freund says.
Satellite and aerial photos from 1992 reveal a circular area in the center of the marsh, with a channel leading to the Mediterranean. In 2003, German archeologist Werner Wickboldt detected structures in the photos which very closely resemble those Plato describes in his writings on Atlantis. A year later, fellow German archeologist Dr. Rainer Kühne wrote in the journal “Antiquity” about a rectangular edifice shown in the photos, and theorized that the structure might be a remnant of a temple of Poseidon.
Here’s where Freund enters the marsh, looking for Tarshish, another mythical city mentioned in antiquity that inexplicably vanishes from the literature. “Tarshish is mentioned as one of the most ancient civilizations, in Genesis, Exodus, the second book of Chronicles, and Jonah,” he says. “Then it suddenly and mysteriously disappears from the Bible.”
The park and marsh are closed to the public, and there is only a small window in the autumn when the ground is dry enough for exploration and excavation. Because of the unusually high water table, the Spanish archeologists were unable to use traditional tactics, so they called in Freund, who is known in scientific circles for using cutting-edge geophysics technology to pinpoint where to excavate.
The National Geographic documentary visits excavations in Turkey and on Crete and Santorini before turning the lens on southern Spain. That site is the main focus of the film, which follows the North American and Spanish scientists in September 2009 and September 2010, and explores how Freund and his team came up with a viable plan for the Spaniards.
Lead cartographer Philip Reeder from the University of South Florida and lead geophysicist Paul Bauman from WorleyParsons in Calgary, Canada applied electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), similar to an MRI; ground-penetrating radar; and digital mapping to quickly survey the entire subsurface of the site and provide instantaneous results. With the new map, the Spanish team could now ascertain exactly where to dig.
The geophysical tests reveal what Plato describes as a simple series of three concentric belts or circles built on a sandbar or artificial island, with one passageway used as an entrance and exit for ships. The large wooden boats of the period would enter the city, circumnavigate around each of the two outer land-belts, and then sail back out into the bay. In the center of the formation was a circular island, 300 feet in diameter, which housed the ancient civilization’s religious shrine. Objects at regular intervals around the perimeter indicate stone walls.
Another intersection of literature and physical evidence: “Tarshish” is also used in the bible as the word for the wooden trading ships that came to Israel from the west. In core samples taken at a 45-foot depth around the outside of the circular land-mass, Freund’s team discovered pieces of wooden boats, datable to 4400 BCE.
Like the concentric circles of the island leading to the holy center, the team’s discoveries became more and more intriguing. There was physical evidence on the site, what Freund calls his “smoking gun.” On the first day of the excavations, he found a small stone figurine at the site of the Holy of Holies, which is likely a representation of Ishtar or Astarte, the goddess of fertility widely worshipped throughout Near Eastern cultures. The next day, he found a second figurine of the goddess.
But even more compelling to Freund than the whereabouts of the ancient cities are the whereabouts of the Tartessian survivors. “What happened to the refugees? That’s a very Jewish story,” he says. “Did they disappear? Did they assimilate? Or did they somehow memorialize their past?” The question led to what Freund considers his real contribution to the quest, and the “Jewish part” of the search for Atlantis and Tarshish.
He posed the query to his Spanish counterparts and was taken to see the “Tartessians of the north,” a group of cities built 3,000 years ago, 150 miles from the coast. According to the book of Isaiah, Tarshish was destroyed in the 9th or 8th century BCE, the same time period ascribed to the northern refugee community, Freund says. He believes now that Atlantis was the first city established on the southern Spanish site some 4400 years ago, and after it was destroyed, Tarshish was built on its ruins, only to be wiped out by another natural disaster.
Archeologists have been excavating the northern site over the last quarter-century, and here’s the kicker: each settlement includes a miniature version of Tarshish – a central shrine area surrounded by a moat of water with a central water-passage leading into and out of the site.
“One of the archeologists told me, ‘We thought it was strange: they built this water around the outside, but nobody lived there.’ I said, ‘This is what happened to the refugees: they resettled and established miniature versions of their ancient city as a memorial to their great identity.’”
If there had only been one memorial city, Freund says, the theory may have been farfetched. But he was shown seven. And in front of each stood a stone stele carved with a circular symbol, with one or two human figures holding spears. One hundred of these monuments have been discovered, with 20 on display in a museum in Barrancos, just over the Portuguese border.
The Spanish archeologists told Freund that they had always believed the circular symbol was a shield. But in the carvings, the figures are never holding the object, and it sometimes appears above their heads. Freund believes that the circular carving is a rendition of the destroyed city, and that the figures are meant as guardians of its memory.
This type of memorial city also appears throughout Mexico, miniatures of the Aztec island city of Tenochtitlan, which was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. Archeologists are now looking for the ancient site beneath the streets of modern-day Mexico City, but in areas where they are unable to excavate, they are using the mini-Tenochtitlan as a means of measurement and comparison, Freund says.
“Like Atlantis, each of the memorial cities includes a shrine, designs on the walls, artifacts, architectural features, and site planning that allowed these people, far from their mother city and long after it no longer existed, to remember their ancient heritage,” he says.
And he finds that the most poignant aspect of the project. “This is very similar to what the Jews did when their own central shrine in Jerusalem was destroyed,” he says. “We created a ‘miniature’ version of the Temple in each and every synagogue of the Diaspora. Inside were versions of the holy altar, the ark, the menorah, and the symbols of the pilgrimage on mosaic floors and carved into the rock decorations. No sacrifices were allowed, but new versions of the religion of the ancient Israelites were created in those synagogues. The Jews even called each synagogue a “Mikdash Me’at,” a miniature Temple. I didn’t forget this piece of advice when we started our work in the southern swamp of Doñana in southern Spain, and it would turn out to be the key to understanding what happened to Atlantis.”
Prof. Richard Freund has directed six archaeological projects in Israel and three projects in Europe on behalf of the University of Hartford, including Bethsaida, Qumran, the Cave of Letters, Nazareth, Yavne, Har Karkom, as well as at the site of the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. He has appeared in 15 TV documentaries on biblical archaeology, including: the History Channel’s “God vs. Satan: The Final Battle,” CNN’s “After Jesus: The First Christians,” and NOVA’s “Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land,” based on his book, “Secrets of the Cave of Letters.” Articles on his excavations have appeared in “Biblical Archaeology Review,” “National Geographic,” “Time Magazine,” “Reader’s Digest,” and “Eretz Magazine.” Dr. Freund is the author or co-author of eight books, including six books on archaeology, and author of more than 100 scholarly articles. His most recent book, “Digging Through the Bible: Ancient Archaeology and the Modern Bible” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), was a ForeWord Book of the Year Finalist.
For more information on “Finding Atlantis:” www.channel.nationalgeographic.com