Finding Atlantis, by Beth Peterson

Finding Atlantis

By Beth Peterson

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39.7024° N, 44.2991° E
Mount Ararat, Turkey

When I was still a child, the first story I heard about a flood was the tale of Noah’s ark. There was a man, Noah, building a boat, and then groups of animals loading themselves onto that boat two-by-two. While the land around them flooded, Noah, his family, and all those animals rode out the 40-day storm, tucked safely inside their floating wooden home. At the end of it all, the waters receded and a rainbow was given to Noah as a promise that there would never again be a flood that large, one that covered the whole earth.

Sea dragon

59.8586° N, 17.6389° E
Uppsala, Sweden

It would be some time after hearing about the ark before I would read of another flooded land, this time the island of Atlantis. In that story—first recorded by Plato in his dialogues, Timaeus and Critias—there is an ancient island kingdom that is a superpower in its own right. “For at this time, the ocean was passable,” Plato would write, “since it had an island in it in the front of the strait that you people call the ‘Pillars of Hercules.’ This island was larger than Libya and Asia combined and it provided passage to the other islands for people who traveled in those days.” The island that Plato described wasn’t content to only keep to its boundaries, however, even as vast as they were. Instead, as Plato recounted, “this power gathered all of itself together, and set out to enslave all of the territory inside the strait, including your region, in one fell swoop.”

The island’s power grew larger and larger as it swept across the region, conquering one people after another. Still, like many of the stories I heard as a child, this superpower couldn’t get away with its evil advances forever. As the narrative continues, Athens—one of the regions the island attempted to take over and subdue—rose up and decided to fight for its freedom. Even when deserted by their neighbors, the Athenians fought valiantly, and in a surprising feat of victory overcame the island power, freeing all of the people who it had enslaved. Immediately after Athens won, violent earthquakes and floods began to shake the area. Following what Plato calls “the onset of an unbearable day and night… the entire warrior force sank below the earth all at once, and the island of Atlantis likewise sank below the sea.” In a reverse ending to the story of Noah, the flooded waters didn’t reveal land; instead, the whole place was lost into the dark depths of the ocean.

Throughout the years since Plato penned the story of Atlantis, many locations have been proposed as possible homes for the ancient submerged city: Malta, Israel, Canaan, the Bimini Road in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, the Madeira Islands, the Bermuda Triangle, and Indonesia. Ships, explorers, and mapmakers alike have searched for Atlantis, or have made claims that they have found it.

Even Sweden has been proposed as a site of the lost Atlantis. Between 1679 and 1702, Olof Rudbeck, the botanist who planted some of Sweden’s most famous gardens, argued that his hometown of Uppsala was the location of the lost Atlantis. In his 2,500-page work, Atlantica, Rudbeck set out to prove his theory using mythology and etymology as evidence for his 100-plus reasons why Uppsala matched Plato’s narrative.

Looking through the online holdings of a rare map store in California, I find an inked-in map commissioned by Rudbeck. Latitude and longitude lines are sketched on the bottom and right side of the map and veer in thin lines across it. Mountains, rivers, and towns are added to the map, along with dozens of small islands following Sweden’s shoreline. There, in approximately the spot where Uppsala now stands, is the label Atlandah.

Flying fish

41.8683° N, 88.0996° W
Wheaton, Illinois, United States of America

When I was in graduate school, I lived in a city that occasionally flooded. My whole life before this, I’d never lived in a low place, never had to consider the flow of water. The old farmhouse I shared with two other roommates in that city, though, was prone to inundation. Bordered in the front by a parking lot and in the back by railroad tracks, it was out of place just a few buildings from the main thoroughfare to downtown. On the second floor we were fine, but in one storm after another our neighbors in the downstairs apartment pulled sofas and rugs and bookcases onto our porch to dry. The narrow driveway flooded and so, too, did the campus parking lot down the street.

Temporary No Parking signs appeared during storms, and my neighbors and I usually remembered to move our cars. One weekend when we were all away, though, one of my roommates accidentally left her car in that low-lying campus parking lot. When she returned, there was her lone white car, drowning in three feet of water. Though the neighbors’ apartment did not flood during that storm, several buildings on campus did. In one of the dorms, the weight of the water caused windows on the first floor to break, forcing students to evacuate into lounges or to stay with friends, some for the rest of the semester. That night, a friend of mine who lived in the dorm walked outside and saw lightning strike ground just in front of her. Some years later she would tell me that the image never left her, that when she saw that bolt on the campus lawn, she thought at first it was a tree on fire.

After the storm was over, black-and-white newspaper photos showed students swimming in the streets. None of us knew that the water was not only coming down from the sky, but also up from the sewers.


54.7214° N, 2.7678° E
The Doggerbank, North Sea

In 1999, French author Jean Deruelle published Atlantide des Mégalithes, a book that drew on older Atlantis theories as well as historical and geographical research to propose that a strip of land called the “Doggerbank” was the one-time site of Atlantis.

Deep in the North Sea, between the U.K. and Europe, the Doggerbank was named in the 1990s by British archeologist Byronny Coles after the “doggers” or Dutch fishing boats that used to travel there. Though many meters under the surface now, that land is thought to have once been above-water, before massive floods took place there near the middle of the 7th century B.C.E. Deruelle and others proposed those floods were triggered by a series of earthquakes that broke open methane deposits on the ocean floor and also caused more than 180 miles of Norwegian coastline to collapse into the sea. From that force came a tsunami. The Doggerbank—and whatever inhabited it—was lost, once and seemingly for all, beneath the North Sea.

Deruelle believed there was clear evidence that the Doggerbank fit the Atlantis narrative, most notably because it is one of the few submerged places in the world that is home to a “Great Plain,” one of Plato’s descriptions of Atlantis. In the years before Deurelle wrote his book, trawlers had already dragged up some man-made artifacts from this area, further evidence in Deruelle’s mind that an ancient civilization had once claimed this spot.

In the almost two decades since Deruelle’s book, the Doggerbank and its surrounding area, Doggerland, have become a site of even more study. In 2015, a team of researchers from the University of Bradford and several other British universities received a €2.5 million grant from the European Research Council to study and map Doggerland using remote sensing data acquired from oil and gas companies.


59.8586° N, 17.6389° E

Sometime after finding the Swedish Atlantis map in the California map store, I visited Uppsala. On my way, I took a detour to nearby Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, home of a 1,200-ton wooden Swedish warship that sunk in 1628, less than 20 minutes after taking off for its maiden voyage and only two years before Rudbeck, that originator of the Swedish Atlantis theory, was born.

I took my time walking through the museum, circling all around the bronzed ship, past its tall masts and intricate carvings: a lion with a coat of arms in its paws, two baby angels, the Greek god Hercules, and a series of warriors. As I toured exhibits about the people who would have worked on the ship, and packed or handled the artifacts on display, my interest gravitated toward the narrative of the sinking—a top-heavy boat catching the wind, then taking on water only 1,300 meters from shore, while the crowd of onlookers who’d come to see the maiden voyage watched, unable to help. Was the sinking of the Vasa on the edges of Rudbeck’s consciousness when he began to study Atlantis?  Did the idea of something being not lost but drowned, or maybe buried, lead to his revisionist ideas on Plato’s island?

Later that day, I boarded a train for Uppsala, an old and impressive university city with smoky cafes, streets packed with bicycles, and a narrow river running through downtown. I visited the university, a local castle, and the red brick Uppsala Cathedral, the site where Rudbeck is buried. I wandered through the gardens that he planted too, but still could not find anything in all of those places that echoes the myth of Atlantis.

My last stop in Sweden was a boat trip through the archipelago, “channels” as Rudbeck called them, borrowing the term from Plato. It was a bright day with a slight wind as the low boat motored away from the shore and headed out of the harbor and then past several tiny islands just off the coastline. Mostly the other boats we passed were small, like ours. Sometime midway through the day, though, a reconstructed sailing ship—maybe from the time of the Vasa or the doggerboats—sailed by, the body of the ship dark wood with a deep red mast and a Dutch flag billowing in the sea air.

I try now to imagine, as I think about that ship, Rudbeck himself standing on the deck of a similar boat, looking out over what he is certain is the ancient Atlantis: not just an island, but a country.

Sea dragon

14.5994° S, 28.6731° W
The Atlantic Ocean

When I began to study the story of Atlantis, I assumed the place was named after the Titan god Atlas who, after getting on the wrong side of a war, was condemned to forever hold up the sky—the same god who collections of maps are named after: atlases. It turns out that there are two Greek gods named Atlas. The Atlas who ruled Atlantis wasn’t a Titan; instead, he was the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Perhaps his island’s end shouldn’t have been surprising given his parentage. Perhaps it’s also not surprising that the name “Atlantic Ocean” is tied to this god and his submerged home.

Of course, Plato’s Atlantis isn’t just a story of a lost city; it is a cautionary tale, too, about what happens when a place gets too powerful and tries to rise up against its neighbors.

There’s one other thing I learned upon revisiting Plato. Critias is considered by some scholars to be the first environmental text; in it Plato also laments the destruction of forests near Athens. Many great floods, he explains, have eroded the soil and changed the landscape of the city until the city has become like “the bones of the wasted body.”


35.8364° N, 14.5282° E
Ghar Dalam, Malta

The Malta-as-Atlantis hypothesis verges on a number of factors: an underwater land bridge that may have once connected Malta to continental Europe, stone ruins on the island that date back 9,000 years and echo Atlantis’s architecture, and fossils of large animals found in a cave called Ghar Dalam—animals that couldn’t be sustained on the island as stands today, animals that could have died off after a sudden, catastrophic event.

I visited Malta’s Ghar Dalam cave and museum with a Maltese friend, Simon. It was an unseasonably hot summer and no cars were available to rent, so he’d kindly offered to be my guide. Ghar Dalam lies on the other side of the island from where I was staying, so Simon picked me up in his old car, driving the long way and pulling over once or twice to point out historic buildings and ocean views. At one stop, we stood on a high cliff above the Blue Grotto, a series of coastal arches and caves, famous for its phosphorescent plants and deep blue water reflecting off stone. The waves seemed to move in constantly shifting circles around the white stone; a tiny boat propelled past the largest of the arches, hundreds of feet below.

The entrance to the Ghar Dalam cave is in the middle of a small village. Simon navigated the car through various narrow streets, finally parking in front of a nondescript building, one that looked, except for the sign, like it could be a post office or even a residence. A door led to a hallway, and another door, back outside. Down several steps, the cave itself was smaller than I’d imagined. From the barred entrance, the orange-lit path wound a mere 70 feet, never so far as to even obscure the afternoon light. Metal railings lined the path, but there wasn’t much to see beyond those railings. I’d expected, perhaps unrealistically, to see many of the giant fossils that I had heard about in the cave’s crevices or near its walls. Instead, all I saw were stalagmites, stalactites, and narrow cut-out holes where the fossils must have once been. 

I did see some of the fossils I’d imagined in a small museum onsite, though. Tightly boxed-in wooden display cases in that museum held bones and other artifacts found in the caves: a bush elephant in one, what looks like a reindeer in another. Other bones—the ones that hadn’t been organized into skeletons—were simply displayed in big, mixed cases, with small name cards labeling their sources. Despite fluorescent lights hanging along the outside walls, the whole room felt dimly lit and stuffy, more for storage than for viewing.

After ten or 15 minutes of walking among the bones, I saw the museum proprietor checking his watch. Simon and I said thanks and walked out into the hot sun. 

“What are you looking for here?” Simon asked me as we strode back on the dusty street towards his car.  

We walked awhile in silence. The truth is I’m not sure what I was looking for in Malta or even in the story of the lost Atlantis. Maybe, I think now, it’s about understanding the past to prevent a similar future, or maybe it’s a need to figure out for myself the import of the stories we tell, what’s truth and what’s myth.   


36.3932° N, 25.4615° E
Santorini, Greece

Jean Deurelle and Olof Rudbeck are not the only ones to argue Atlantis might have been real. Many historians and scholars believe that there could have been a historical basis for Atlantis, even if the stories that have come down to us are fictionalized. As in the case of the Doggerbank, these theories often hinge on cataclysmic events.

Perhaps even more likely than the earthquakes of Doggerbank is the eruption of a volcano in Santorini, Greece, sometime between 1600-1500 B.C.E. Not only did the lava and ash consume whole cities, it’s thought that a tsunami followed, submerging nearby coastal areas. In the 1960s, an ancient Minoan settlement was discovered beneath the ash of the volcano on Santorini. Pottery and furniture and frescoes began to emerge; soon, three-story buildings appeared. It seemed newly possible that this site—buried and not that far geographically from Plato’s Athens—may have been the basis for Plato’s story. Seventy miles away, on the island of Crete, scattered artifacts discovered along the coast seem to back up this theory, or at least the idea that a series of very large waves had hit land there too.

A few historians line up the Santorini eruption with the Biblical story of Exodus. They see that great migration of the Israelites from Egypt as coinciding not only with the Old Testament story of the Israelites fleeing slavery under Pharaoh, but also with some unforeseen natural disaster. Others have said maybe the myth of Atlantis is evidence, however distant, validating the story of Noah and the flood, Atlantis being what was left in Plato’s day of the memory of that long-ago event.

Sea dragon

41.8683° N, 88.0996° W
Wheaton, Illinois, United States of America

My classmates and I called that year in graduate school when everything flooded “the year of the plagues.” That fall, we had gotten an email that a case of mumps had been discovered at our small college. Unfortunately, the mumps-carrying student hadn’t realized what they had and so had gone to a couple of classes and the library and eaten in the dining hall. Only a few weeks later, there were 30 cases on campus. Infected students were quarantined in their rooms, and student workers were tapped to leave trays of food for them, just outside their doors.

After the mumps came the cicadas—masses of them—a hum in the background of every conversation. They had emerged as part of a 17-year cycle, coming up out of the ground in droves. One local newspaper noted that each cicada’s call was equal to the decibel noise of a kitchen blender. People worried about the effect on outdoor weddings that spring; a local music venue moved the date for its yearly classical concert so that the cellos and violins wouldn’t have to compete with the droning.

Before the cicadas left, the roof of a campus building caught fire while some students were still inside. A blowtorch had been left on by construction workers above the main auditorium. The workers had gone home before anyone realized what had happened. Soon the roof started smoking. Campus safety officers and firemen rushed to clear the building; the auditorium was closed for the rest of the year.

Finally, there was the flood.

Our plagues weren’t the same as those of the Old Testament—boils, locusts, hail, a river turned into blood—but they were close enough to make us wonder.

Sea dragon

29.9511° N, 90.0715° W
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States of America

In 2005, a year-and-a-half before the campus plagues, the levees broke and New Orleans flooded. Hurricane Katrina hit that August, beginning in the Bahamas, making its way over Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico up to Louisiana. New Orleans—with Lake Pontchartrain to its north, Lake Borgne and the Mississippi sound to its east, the Gulf of Mexico to its south, and the Mississippi River winding right through it—was supposed to be protected by a series of levees and floodwalls. Within 24 hours of Katrina’s landfall, one then five then ten of those levees and floodwalls gave way to the water. By the end of the storm, at least 50 levees and floodwalls had failed, leaving 80 percent of the city sitting under water.

The news showed video footage of people being rescued off their roofs and of roads full of drowned cars. In aerial shots you could only see the tops of buildings and houses in one neighborhood after another; all the streets and driveways and yards and the first floors of many of those buildings were completely under water. The city’s disaster plan for major storms like Katrina was unearthed sometime later. It warned that there could be “thousands of fatalities,” water-borne and air-borne toxins, and even “floating coffins”—and that people should be evacuated at least three days before a high-category storm hit land. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, evacuation orders were issued just 24 hours ahead.


29.7604° N, 95.3698° W
Houston, Texas, United States of America

In 2017, ten years after the plagues, Hurricane Harvey descended and the city of Houston flooded. My friends posted videos online from the vantage point of their suburban front porches, the water rising. In one video, a friend stood inside her house with the front door open. The water had filled the entire street, had covered the yard and was lapping up, not far from the front door where she stood. The video panned out, showing the water across the street, or what was at one time a street but was now a flat, wet expanse. On the other side of the road, the water rose past the yards, seeping into the houses. Just before my friend stopped filming, a man in a long red kayak paddled by.

One old friend from college posted about boarding up her windows for the first time and driving north. A former running partner bought a quick plane ticket out of state and figured she would sort out lodging and food when she arrived. Several other friends and acquaintances heeded warnings from the mayor not to leave town and crowd the highways. Instead, they stayed put, hoping their houses wouldn’t fill with water.


34.2104° N, 77.8868° W
Wilmington, North Carolina, United States of America

There is a science behind real and recently submerged cities. As temperatures rise across the globe, glaciers, icebergs, and icecaps melt, draining all that water into the ocean. It’s not only what’s added, though; warming water expands, and so even a small rise in temperatures when spread out over an ocean’s worth of water can mean significant rises in water levels, threatening many low-lying regions. Since the 1880s, sea levels have risen eight inches globally. If temperatures continue to rise at their current rate, by 2100 the earth will be 3.2 C° warmer than it was in the pre-Industrial era, raising ocean levels anywhere between one and six feet and putting at risk cities like Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, London, Miami, and Oakland. In the next 20 years, some of these cities are already predicted to become victims of “chronic, disruptive flooding”—flooding that occurs on average every other week and impacts at least 10 percent of the city’s land.

Warming temperatures also mean more water vapor in the air, feeding hurricanes and increasing their wind strength and intensity. In a 2017 article in the American Meteorological Society, MIT atmospheric sciences professor Kerry Emanuel details the results of 6,000 storm simulations. Factoring for projected changes in temperature, Kerry predicts that by the end of this century, there will be a 118 percent uptick in storms that increase by 60 knots (or about 70 miles per hour) in the 24 hours before they hit land. In the past, there was one of these storms every 100 years. By the end of the 21st century, they’ll happen every five to ten years.

Yet only two years after Hurricane Harvey came Hurricanes Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael. After Houston came San Jose, Puerto Rico; Jacksonville, Florida; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Hilo, Hawaii. 


43.4501° N, 87.2220° W
Lake Michigan, United States of America

One night, I had a dream that my students and I are traveling to attend a literary festival at a park in the middle of a deep woods. Dark evergreens line the road, making everything feel shadowy and hushed. We’re riding there together in a van which one of the students is driving. The dream was weird in the way that dreams often are: it’s the first day of April and also Easter, and part of the dream involved taking strange turns and not having enough cash for gas or entrance fees to the park and having to stop repeatedly until we find some.

It’s early in the morning, still dim, when we finally get to the park. We pile out of the van, all of us standing together in a small clearing. As we look around no one else is there: no booths or speakers or books for sale, no one waiting in lines and no greeters telling us where to go. Instead, in every direction, even the one from which we’ve come, the ground emits smoke. Before any of us has time to decide what to do, the park has become an island full of small, smoking fires—our own Atlantis, burning instead of sinking.

I woke up suddenly, disoriented. I felt urgently that I must write this down.  

In real life, sometime before that dream, I did take my students on a trip, but it wasn’t to a dark forest. It was to Lake Michigan. Our university owned a small tug boat called the D.J. Angus which was used as a science research vessel. I’d checked the weather ahead of our trip and cautioned my students to dress warm, wear layers and a rain jacket, and to bring anything that would help them take in the journey: pens, notebooks, cameras, binoculars if they had them. In the end, the trip was actually blisteringly hot and some of my students, delayed after stopping at McDonalds, almost didn’t make it aboard.

As we set off, two scientists told us what to watch for and talked about the history of the lake and the fish, plants, and animals residing in it. They detailed the release of Asian carp and the problematic zebra mussels that had made their way there in the water tanks of ships. My students took furious notes and one photo after another. Before we made our way beyond the bay where we launched into the wilder, darker waters, one of the students happened to see a shard of wood sticking out of the water.

“What is that?” she asked.

“When ships weren’t useful anymore,” one of the scientists replied, “they were burned or sunk or left just offshore. Since the waters have risen now, all we can see of them are the masts. What you see there, that’s the body of a ship.”

Long after my students and I finished the boat trip, I think about that leftover body, mostly submerged in water. I wonder what it looked like before it was sunk. I wonder what other bodies are left under the water and what bodies are to come.


25.0847° N, 77.3235° W
Atlantis Resort, Bahamas

I was with my family when I visited my final Atlantis site: the famous Bahamas resort of Atlantis. I had hoped we might catch a boat out to the ocean, perhaps near the Bimini Road, an ancient underwater rock path that some Atlantis theorists believe is Plato’s sunken land. But it rained hard that day, so instead we took a van from the main city center to the resort.

Long before the van pulled up to the site we could make out the resort’s Royal Hotel, a castle-like, salmon-colored building with turrets and a large, enclosed bridge, several stories high, connecting its two main buildings. My family and I walked through the hotel, past its lobby and aquariums with swimming schools of brightly colored fish, past the onsite casino and high-end shops: Gucci, Rolex, Versace. We walked down palm tree-lined paths, by pools and waterslides built to look like ancient stepped-stone ruins. We saw a marine habitat called the Dig where groupers, seahorses, eels, and jellyfish swim among statues and pottery shards—a mockup of Plato’s ancient island city. When the rain broke, we headed toward the beach, walking through scores of empty sunbathing chairs and by an outdoor café where music blared. When we finally reached the edge of the water, the kids ran and played in the white sand while we talked about swimming if the rain continued to hold off.  

In the end, the rain started again. We grabbed the towels and kids and hurried toward the nearest shelter, an overhang beneath a small, artificial lagoon.

Just for a moment, in the crowd of people that somehow materialized and was also rushing to take cover, I lost my family. There were people everywhere, crowding into the dimly-lit stone structure. It was the Predator Lagoon, the home of Atlantis’s sharks and barracudas. As I searched the crowd for familiar faces, thunder boomed overhead and I heard a single, piercing scream. The floor was wet, maybe from all the people’s feet or the incoming rain. But what I couldn’t get out of my mind in that moment, searching for my family, was a vision of the waters continuing to rise, that small trickle becoming a stream, the stream becoming waves and then rushing in so fast that none of us would know what had happened. 


37.0902° N, 95.7129° W
United States of America

As a child, I was fascinated by the stories of lost worlds: Treasure Island, Narnia, even the history of Pompeii, buried and then found after so many years. When I went to graduate school, I got caught up in maps, which took me back to the lost world, the mapped and unmapped: Erewhon, King Solomon’s Mines, Gulliver’s Travels, Coral Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and finally: Atlantis. I wanted, more than anything, to travel to these places, to find them in real life or at least to live within their boundaries as long as I could on the page.

It’s the idea that you could walk through the back of a wardrobe or sail just past what you know and find yourself somewhere else. The lost worlds were brilliant and illusory and proof, it seemed, of the value of keeping your eyes wide open. The thing is, as a child, I never considered that the world that was lost at sea might be our own—or the one we’d left behind, let go until it was swallowed whole.


Beth PetersonA wilderness guide before she began writing, Beth Peterson is the author of the essay collection Dispatches from the End of Ice, forthcoming from Trinity University Press this year. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she is an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University.

Header image by ilolab, courtesy Shutterstock. Inset illustrations by Shaliapina, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Beth Peterson by Bobbie Peterson. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.