How the Discovery of ‘Atlantis’ Made Big News Then Faded Away

Before the holidays, there were a couple stories on BBC and various online news rags of questionable nature (Ancient Origins, The Express, Daily Mail, etc.) of this grandiose claim that “Atlantis has been discovered” by a big tech firm in the UK that specializes in searching for terrestrial treasure from space.

This article is about the big discovery of Atlantis and why the story is now faded from the limelight in the news media just two months later.

Background

Atlantis is a fictional city used as an allegory in two of the dialogues of Plato (Critias and Timaeaus) as a way of criticizing the state and nationalism in general without being direct. Plato’s description of Atlantis is one that portrays Atlantis as an aggressor that Athens defends against 9,000 years prior to Plato’s time. To offer perspective, Plato lived and taught nearly 2400 years ago. As Plato tells it, the Atlantis story is nearly four times older to him that he is to us. The story was created by Plato, who probably developed the whole idea of using dialogues as allegories in teaching. Through his character Critias, Plato tells us that Atlantis, as a state outside the “Pillars of Hercules”, conquered much of the territory within the Pillars, including Libya. Plato goes on, through Critias, to date this period of warfare and conquest to 9,000 years before Critias‘ lifetime and that the Atlanteans were bad people: subjecting those they conquered to slavery, etc.

Through Timaeus, Plato describes, but doesn’t name, Atlantis as a large island that once sat beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” and in the Atlantic Ocean. Plato tells us that this island was larger than Libya and Asia together and that there was a confederation of kings “of great marvelous power.” But it’s through Critias that Plato gives the dimensions of Atlantis as 345 miles by 230 miles, making it a large, elliptical island roughly the size of Great Britain’s 80,000 or so square miles.

Key features mentioned in Critias also include circular moats of increasing width, often considered to be concentric rings, canals that connect to the sea, and guarded gates and docks carved directly into the rock walls of the moats and canals. And all this was, according to Plato (through Critias), destroyed in a massive cataclysm that caused the destruction of the entire island by sinking it and all its inhabitants to the bottom of the ocean.

Much of today’s pseudoarchaeological and pseudohistorical accounts of Atlantis have their origins, whether they know it or not, with an 1882 book called Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, by Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly was a populist politician and was used to criticizing “the mainstream” and finding ways to appeal to the lowest common denominator among society. Ironically, this is the same sentiment that we see expressed among the “Ancient Aliens” crowd even today. Indeed, many of the ideas in his book are still part of that very pseudoscientific shtick presented on cable television “reality” shows. Donnelly proposed that Atlantis was the origin for all the great ancient civilizations, that they had some sort of advanced technology, and that they were wiped out by a comet. Donnelly’s influence can be seen through the works of Edgar Cacye (who pretended to be or believed he was clairvoyant), Graham Hancock, James Churchward (who proposed the lost continent of Mu), and just about every other mystery-monger that’s currently producing pseudoarchaeological media for mass-consumption.

The Discovery

November 2018 – Doñana National Park in Spain

Merlin Burrows, a North Yorkshire, England based company that claims to “find anything that has been lost, forgotten or hidden with pin-point accuracy. We provide a full project management service to a bespoke level depending on the client requirements and the scope and parameters of the works required.” According to their website they use “deep-scan surveys” and employ historians, marine archaeologists, and specialist researchers to locate national treasures, search for wartime shipping and aircraft (ancient, modern, and current), and–of course–archaeological sites.

In November, they announced that they discovered Atlantis at Doñana National Park in Spain. The CEO of Merlin Burrows, Bruce Blackburn, was quoted as saying:

Obviously, it’s a very bold thing to say. Everybody is going to have [one of] two opinions. One is that ‘This is great. Let’s have a look at it,’ and one will be ‘That’s a load of rubbish.’

Bruce Blackburn as quoted by Livescience on Nov. 28, 2018.

Blackburn has a background in business and finance, but perhaps he surrounded himself with people that know how to do Phase I archaeological survey. Surely that person of great experience and education knows the first major step: literature search.

Based on the results, I suspect that part of the process might be a little broken for them.

Beginning with the conclusion that Atlantis actually existed, they read Critias, Timaeus, and a mystery text that they aren’t sharing with the public (according to Livescience). That pointed them to Spain. Looking at satellite images, they found “large circles that were possibly the bases of ancient towers.” And the remains of a “long sea wall.” They took samples and are either claiming or hopeful that they’ll end up being 10,000 to 12,000 years old.

It would seem, however, that they had the wrong archaeologist on the team. I remember seeing some “news” about this particular “Atlantis Discovered” claim back in November and I mostly ignored it. I saved one or two links to follow up on in case I wanted to write an article like this, so today I dug them out and looked it over. In about 30 minutes, I figured out that Merlin Burrows’ “Atlantis” is not all that ancient.

I loaded up Google Earth, went to the location on the map, and spent about 20 minutes looking for the “circles” in the photos that accompanied the articles linked above. In archaeology, literature review is vital. We want to know what other people know about a site, if anything. It saves us much time and hassle! The articles describe the Merlin Burrows people looking at old texts, but mention nothing about modern literature. Parts of this are modern surveys and historic maps. Historic maps are vital in archaeology because they can tell you how the land was used recently, which can help you eliminate chasing wild-goose features. And that’s what the Merlin Burrows team ended up with.

These are the oval circles found by the Merlin Burrows team while reviewing sat images. They are curious, in an obvious pattern, etc. Image Courtesy Google Earth.

The oval features they described were there. And they presented a very curious pattern. And there are two sets of these features. Clearly they have purpose and method to their design, but are they ancient? The edges are very crisp. Not what you’d expect for features hundreds of years old much less from features alleged to be over 10,000 years old. My first inclination was to see if they were there in recent history.

If you simply move the time line in Google Earth back a few years, the circular features utterly disappear! They’re gone! So I did a quick search using a few choice keywords in Google Scholar and Google. In another 30 seconds to a minute, I found a paper in PLOS that described a biological study that began in 2004 at the very location where Merlin Burrows located Atlantis!

This is the same location on the Earth’s surface as the image above, but an historic view to 10/3/2004. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

The “circles” found by Merlin Burrows were experimental ponds used in 2004 and 2005 to measure zooplankton dispersal rates and are located within Caracoles estate (37°07’N, 6°31’W, Fig. 1) in Doñana National Park (Southwest Spain). From the PLOS paper (Frisch et al 2005):

This experimental pond area (see Fig. 1 for spatial setup) contains 96 elliptically-shaped temporary ponds of three different surface areas (with a long axis of 250 m, 125 m and 60 m in 8, 24 and 64 ponds, respectively) and two excavation depths (30 and 60 cm).

Frisch et al 2005
Fig. 1 from Fresch et al 2005

To their credit, Michael Donnellan, who appears to be involved in creating the documentary about their “discovery” put a short message on his Facebook feed indicating that they figured this out:

Our revision of Atlantica is going to reflect the new information we have obtained about the oval formations in the Donana. Occasionally, in the process of research, people make mistakes. In this case, the structures have apparently turned out to be large ecological structures created for biological research in 2005. Our film and new Trailer will reflect that new information, as we now know it.

Michael Donnellan (https://www.facebook.com/michael.donnellan/posts/10155704200841456)

Still, the news articles from November used these oval formations (experimental ponds) as the main feature. There was also mentioned some “ruins” and a “sea wall,” but so many people have been living in this region since he Neolithic that it would be utterly irresponsible to assume these features have anything to do with a fictional island the size of Great Britain that sank. Moreover, if this team can get something so easy so wrong, there are probably very good explanations for the remaining features, which might very well turn out to be Moorish watchtowers and old salt pan levies.

It’s a good sign that the company, Merlin Burrows, is stepping back from the claims of “Towers of Poseidon” related to the zooplankton ponds. And it’s interesting that they’re finding some real history related to shipwrecks (a recent find includes the Bonhomme Richard, a 1779 American warship of the Revolutionary War found of the coast of Yorkshire. But they have some basic gaps in the experience of their specialists as indicated by mistaking well-documented 21st century AD experimental ponds for footings of 11,000 year old buildings. I predict their other “finds” associated with Atlantis will be met with equal ineptitude.

I don’t find it encouraging, however, that Donnellan and Merlin Burrows have essentially pulled all their links to their grandiose claims of Atlantis without fully explaining why. Donnellan’s quote above wasn’t his entire post, but nowhere does he explain how the experimental ponds were missed in the literature review or what holes in their methodology allow such a thing to get past their own quality review.

This is could be because Merlin Burrows and associated partners put fame and glory (and thus money and status) ahead of research and knowledge.

References and Further Reading

Donnelly, Ignatius (1882). Atlantis: the Antediluvian World. Free Kindle download at Amazon.

Frisch D, Cottenie K, Badosa A, Green AJ (2012) Strong Spatial Influence on Colonization Rates in a Pioneer Zooplankton Metacommunity. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40205. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0040205

IFLS (2018) https://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/mysterious-waterlogged-structures-spark-claims-of-atlantis-discovery/

Livescience (2018) https://www.livescience.com/64176-lost-city-atlantis-spain.html

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.