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How a Mysterious Metal Could Uncover the Origins of Atlantis

It may not lead to an actual sunken city, but an ancient shipwreck could expose the cultural roots of a perplexing legend.

Plato. Photo by Jastrow via Flickr

In early January, archaeologists exploring a nearly 2,600-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Sicily found something unbelievably rare and exciting amongst the cargo. It wasn’t some long lost or revolutionary work of art or some mystifying piece of machinery—the kind of things that usually captivate the world when unearthed. It was a cache of 39 ingots of a mysterious substance known as “orichalcum.”

A rare and little understood metal, never before found in any great quantities, the shipwreck’s explorers look at this unprecedented find as a testament to the wealth and craftsmanship of Gela, the town where the ship was bound. That’s all fine and good for the world’s reserved archaeologists. But to many more excitable (but not entirely unreasonable) minds, the metal could be a key in the search for the historical Atlantis, the lost city Plato described as built from orichalcum.

Before your tinfoil-hat alarm bells go off, this isn’t to say that the find will lead us, a la Disney, to an actual lost city. Atlantis is undoubtedly just a fable. Plato invented it as a mythical, ancient example to outline the decline of a once utopian civilization (with a constitution suspiciously similar to the ideal government Plato envisions in The Republic) and the merits of his native Athens, which supposedly fought off the Atlantean superpower before its cataclysmic destruction.

It’s only in the past couple of centuries that people have abandoned historic incredulity about the myth and started searching for a real Atlantis. Atlantiphiles have put forward some bizarre theories involving aliens, ancient master races, and locales from Antarctica to the Bermuda Triangle to the Americas, all supposedly home to unsubstantiated futuristic cultures. But most of these interpretations take serious liberties with Plato’s myth or just straight up ignore basic scientific evidence, like the incompatibility between plate tectonics and the canonical Atlantis story.

Yet as with all fiction, there’s likely a seed of historical truth or precedent in Plato’s Atlantis mythology. Think of modern fantasy and sci-fi: Even the batshit crazy adventures of Game of Thrones are rooted in fanciful mishmashes of history. And we love remixing Roman history towards didactic or ideological ends. The history beneath our own fables tells us something about the way we see the past, the things we took away and valued, and the places in which we like to root our own culture and values. So understanding more about the forces that feed into Atlantis—the historical roots of the myth—can help us better understand ancient Greek civilization, which for better or worse undergirds so much of the imperiously dominant Western cultural complex.

NASA Landsat image of Satorini island

Over the years, folks have come up with some compelling cases for historical precursors to the Atlantis myth. Like the Black Sea floods of 5,000 BC that may have inspired the Bible’s great deluge, and the destruction of cities in the Hellenic world like Helike by natural disasters, which occurred fairly close to Plato’s own time. One of the most compelling cases connects Atlantis to the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete, a highly advanced culture destabilized by the effects of a massive volcanic eruption at modern Santorini (whose geography somewhat resembles Atlantis). Thereafter the early Greeks looted the devastated civilization—and worked the Minoans into the myths, learning from their culture. But so far these connections have all been anecdotal, and that’s just not good enough to start talking about Helike or Crete as a definitive influence in the development of Platonic myths and ideas.

But this orichalcum is a rare piece of hard data that we can trace. Though it may not lead us to Atlantis itself, we can check whether it aligns with any of the myth’s the well-attested influences, or points towards some new locale whose wealth and culture may have influenced Plato.

Scholars have spent ages debating the origins and composition of the metal, also mentioned in sources beyond Plato. First noted in the works of Hesiod in the 7th century BC and legendarily created by Cadmus, the mythical founder of ancient Thebes, orichalcum pops up outside of myth as a metal reportedly used in certain real Roman coins. But for ages all we knew was that it was intensely valuable, shone like gold, probably contained copper, and had already become rare by the time of Plato. Many assumed it was a brass-like alloy created using copper, charcoal, and zinc, although the process of its creation and its composition remained unknown.

Now, with plentiful samples of the metal, we have been able to conclude that orichalcum is indeed a type of brass—75 to 80 percent copper and 15 to 20 percent zinc with traces of nickel, lead, and iron, according to x-ray analysis. Understanding the composition of the metal and the process by which it was made is something we can work backwards from. Using other artifacts found on the ship, we could attempt to trace the vessel’s itinerary, looking at its port of origin for other hints of the metal in records or trash heaps or even black market antiquities stalls. There’s no guarantee that we can accomplish this—and it would be a monumental undertaking, to say the least. But if we can find the origins of orichalcum, we can plug it into the rest of what we know about the legend of Atlantis.

There are tons of caveats to this quest. Maybe this isn’t the only type of orichalcum. Maybe it isn’t orichalcum at all, but instead some other, misidentified metal. Maybe we screw up and track it to the wrong locale. But if it does match up with the Minoan hypothesis or any other, or even if it can lead us to the remains of a once-great source of the metal, it will help us put a few more historical pegs into a wobbly legend. Even if it’s not a decisive note on the origins and mythology of Atlantis and the influences that helped create Greek culture, it’s one more step towards closing the valve of mystery that fuels the deafening din of crackpot theories. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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