This two-page feature by Marcus Dunk on my first novel Atlantis appeared in The Daily Express on 23 July 2005. Since then Atlantis has sold well over a million copies and been published in thirty languages,
FOUND! LOST CITY OF ATLANTIS
For centuries, people have speculated on the location of the fabled civilization that sank beneath the waves. Now, in a fascinating new novel, one man thinks that he at last can provide the answer…
Marine archaeologist Jack Howard could not believe his eyes. From his Aquapod hundreds of metres beneath the Black Sea, the former Special Forces soldier peered at a giant statue of a bull at the entrance to a magnificent city, still majestic and intact 8,000 years after it was buried by the rising waters. Tutankhamun’s tomb, the walls of Troy … the hallowed discoveries of archaeology faded next to the greatest discovery of all time. Here before his eyes was the fabled city of Atlantis.
For marine archaeologist David Gibbins, this pivotal scene in his new novel, Atlantis, may be fiction but he insists it’s firmly rooted in fact. For more than 20 years, he specialized in ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities in the Mediterranean and Aegean. ‘Atlantis is the great unsolved mystery from ancient history, yet so often it has been approached as if it’s science fiction,’ says Canadian-born Gibbins. ‘All these theories about it being in the Atlantic, it being in Cuba, it being in Antarctica – they’re fun but they completely miss the point. Instead of seeking it in some fantastic location, we should be looking for it in the heart of the ancient world where civilization began. That’s far more exciting.’
In his novel, archaeologists led by Howard stumble upon clues to the location of Atlantis during excavations and race to find it, battling Islamic extremists and a sunken Russian nuclear submarine packed with warheads. A sort of Da Vinci Code of the deep sea, Atlantis may read like an airport thriller but the ideas underpinning it are deadly serious. ‘I’ve been fascinated by Atlantis ever since I was a kid in Canada doing my first dives,’ says Gibbins. ‘One of the things that I loved was how archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries used ancient Greek myths to rediscover Troy and the lost civilizations of the Bronze Age. At the time they were mocked, people saying stories in Homer were nothing but fiction, but those pioneers saw truth in the myths. They were right. I felt the same about Atlantis. I wondered if maybe there wasn’t a kernel of truth in stories about its existence.’
First described by the Greek philosopher Plato in 360BC in two of his works, the Timaeus and the Critias, Atlantis is portrayed as an empire founded by the sea god Poseidon on a land mass the size of “Libya and Asia put together”. An advanced, conquering kingdom, said Plato, Atlantis met a nasty fate after it overreached and angered the gods. “But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”
Ever since then, historians, adventurers, explorers and multitudes of New Age nuts have advanced theories about its location and significance. It was Ireland, it was Australia, it was off the Spanish port of Cadiz, off Morocco, capital of a global pre-Ice Age civilization, terrestrial HQ of an intergalactic empire …
For Gibbins, the truth is more straightforward. His novel posits the idea that the lost city could be in the depths of the Black Sea, an area once lush and fertile before flooding caused the rapid evacuation of the area. ‘Two very recent discoveries underpin my theory in the novel,’ Gibbins says. ‘First, the startling evidence about sea level change after the Ice Age.’ The facts here are undisputed. Five million years ago, the Mediterranean dried out after being cut off from the Atlantic. What is now the Black Sea also greatly reduced in size. When the Mediterranean began to fill again during the “great melt” at the end of the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, the Black Sea, separated by the Bosphorus, took another two thousand or so years to fill.
According to Gibbins, a great civilization came to its peak in the region during this period, until water crashed over the Bosphorus, flooding the land and creating today’s Black Sea in less than a year. But far from entirely disappearing, the inhabitants and their culture, religion, language and technology dispersed throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa – a diaspora that formed the basis for civilization as we know it.
Far-fetched as it may sound, this theory of the birth of civilization has become more widely accepted. ‘This is the second discovery that underpins my theory in the novel,’ says Gibbins. ‘A whole lot of new ideas about how the advent of farming and Indo-European language spread together around the ancient world at the dawn of history have been put forward, positing the idea that they all spread rapidly, and they came from one source. In my book, that source is Atlantis.’
If this theory is true, then all of us – genetically, culturally or in the language we speak – are decendants of Atlantis. But before we get carried away and take to the oceans, Gibbins is keen to point out that his theories about Atlantis are exactly that: theory. ‘It is speculation, based on evidence that we know,” says Gibbins. 'If – and when – more Black Sea expeditions go ahead, then I’m sure they would find amazing stuff. In the book I write about shipwrecks perfectly preserved in brine in the depths of the Black Sea, and part of that is true. Below 200m, the Black Sea is dead, with deposits of brine there from when it was cut off from the Mediterranean. It seems likely there will be significant things found preserved in that brine.’
Unlike others who claim that they have “irrefutable evidence” of Atlantis, Gibbins prefers to see it as a vague mythical idea that may have some grounding in fact. ‘People who use Plato’s reference as some sort of treasure map, they are like fundamentalists,’ he explains. ‘They’re taking the text far too literally – Plato was a philosopher, not a historian. Atlantis always meant much more than simply a drowned civilization. To the ancients it was a fascination with the fallen, with greatness doomed by arrogance and hubris.’
Every age has its own Atlantis fantasy, harking back to an era of unimagined splendour overshadowing all history. To the Nazis, it was the birthplace of the Ǖberman, the original Aryan homeland, spurring a demented search around the world for racially pure descendants. To some, Atlantis was a precursor of civilization lost in the depths of the Ice Age: a Garden of Eden, a Paradise Lost. ‘In the novel I suggest that even the ancient flood myths found in the Bible with Noah and in The Epic of Gilgamesh could have some connection with the Atlantis flood myth. It’s all fun speculation, but there’s some truth there.’
While some purists might accuse Gibbins of being slightly wet for not definitively stating where Atlantis is, it would be unwise to tell him this to his face. Like his fictional alter-ego, Jack Howard, Gibbins’ life can make him seem like a more adventurous cross between Indiana Jones and Jacques Cousteau – although he admits that Howard’s James Bond-like characteristics might be mere wishful thinking on the part of his creator.
‘I’ve worked for 20-odd years in this field, and there is quite a bit of me in Jack,’ laughs Gibbins, ‘and a little bit of fantasy. I’ve worked in central Asia, been involved with NATO science committees and had dealings with warlords.' Gibbins has also had more than his fair share of life-threatening experiences in the field. ‘I have had a couple of scary moments while working on deep wrecks,’ he says. ‘On one occasion I had an equipment malfunction and I ran out of air at 50 metres. It was a choice of either going for the surface – which I would not have made – or swimming for an emergency tank. I went for the tank, and made it just as I was blacking out. It is moments like that which really stay with you, and I’ve tried to give Jack some of those experiences.’
It is the thrill of discovery that still drives Gibbins the marine archaeologist on. ‘I have dived on a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey which dates from the fifth century BC, I have worked on submerged cities and I have helped to map the remains of the ancient harbour at Carthage. I get so thrilled at finding things. I once found a Roman doctor’s medical kit, complete with bronze scalpels. That feeling of recovering something loved and used – that’s amazing. I still love getting that Indiana Jones adrenaline kick.’
With his novel already sold for publication in 25 languages, a film version being mooted, and at least three more Jack Howard novels on the way, Gibbins is happy with being compared to The Da Vinci Code’s author Dan Brown – particularly if the financial rewards enable him to mount more expeditions. ‘I am delighted the books are being compared,’ he says. ‘I read Dan Brown’s after I finished mine, but I think that both books have a strong dose of fact running through them that is really stimulating to readers. If the book does as well as his, then I’ll use the money to finance more expeditions. Money is often a problem with doing fieldwork, so it would be a nice bonus.’
And if an Atlantis expedition were on the cards? Does he think the lost city will ever be found? ‘Let’s just say there’s little in fiction more incredible than the reality of our past,” he says. You simply have to look at the pyramids, imagine they didn’t exist and then try to convince people such things were possible five thousand years ago. They wouldn’t believe you. Amazing things are possible and anything could be discovered. We’ll just have to see.’
Marcus Dunk, 2005