From Atlantis to Noah’s Ark: What lies beneath the flood myths?
2013-07-29 0:00

By Edward Platt | AEON

From Atlantis to Noah’s Ark, we have long been drawn to stories of submerged lands. What lies beneath the flood myths?

In 1931, a trawler called the Colinda sank its nets into the North Sea, 25 miles off the coast of Norfolk, and dredged up an unlikely artefact — a handworked antler, 21cm long, with a set of barbs running along one side. Archeologists identified it as a prehistoric harpoon and dated it to the Mesolithic age, when sea levels around Britain were more than 100 metres lower than they are today, and the island’s sunken rim, at least according to some, was a fertile plain.

’Location of the sunken island Atlantis according to the Egyptians and Platon’s description.’ Athanasius Kircher, 1601-1680. Note that the map is oriented with south at the top.

As long ago as the 10th century, astute observers noted that Britain’s coastlines were fringed with trees, visible only at low tide. Traditionally, the ‘drowned forests’ were regarded as evidence of Noah’s flood — relics of an antediluvian world whose destruction is recorded in the most enduring of all the stories of great floods that sweep the earth and drown its people. At the beginning of the 20th century, another explanation was proposed by the geologist Clement Reid. In his book Submerged Forests (1913), Reid argued that ‘nothing but a change in sea level will account’ for the position of trees stretching from the high water mark ‘to the level of the lowest spring tide’. Observations on the east coast of England led him to conclude that the Thames and Humber estuaries were once ‘flanked by a plain, lying some 40-60 feet below the modern marsh surface’.

Turning his attention to a substance known as ‘moorlog’, dredged up from the bed of the North Sea at Dogger Bank, Reid identified nothing less than a time capsule. Moorlog consists of the compacted remains of animal bones, shells, wood, and lumps of peat, and Reid’s sample contained a variety of bones, including bear, wolf, hyena, bison, mammoth, beaver, walrus, elk and deer. He concluded that ‘Noah’s woods’ once stretched far beyond the shore, with Dogger Bank forming the ‘edge of a great alluvial plain, occupying what is now the southern half of the North Sea, and stretching across to Holland and Denmark’.

The Colinda antler appeared to confirm Reid’s theory, for it came from a freshwater deposit, meaning that it had not been dropped by a sea voyager, but by someone living in the landscape. According to Vincent Gaffney, Simon Fitch and David Smith — the trio of archaeologists at the University of Birmingham who have made the most sustained attempts to build on Reid’s research — this was ‘the first real evidence that the North Sea had been part of a great plain inhabited by the last hunter-gatherers in Europe’.

The area, now called Doggerland, was gradually submerged as the last Ice Age came to an end, and the melting glaciers raised sea levels. Only around 5,500 BCE did Britain finally become an island. The rediscovery of the great plain that formerly connected it to mainland Europe is one of the most remarkable scientific stories of the past decade, yet there is a sense in which it should not come as a surprise at all. Doggerland addresses one of our oldest preoccupations; for we have always told stories about lost civilisations, hidden beneath the waves.

Tales of great deluges evolved for obvious reasons: the earliest human civilisations appeared in Mesopotamia (‘the land between the rivers’), and the deltas of the Yellow River, Indus and Nile. The Egyptian year — the basis of our calendar — divided the seasons by the pattern of rainfall, the season of inundation being when the Nile rose, flooding the surrounding fields. Water was the source of life but also destruction and, as such, it inspired the earliest recorded version of the most famous ‘flood myth’ of all. The story of a Utnapishtim, a just man who is instructed by a god to build an ark so as to survive a flood, appeared in The Epic of Gilgamish. In the Bible Utnapishtim is Noah, and in Greek mythology he is Deucalion, a son of Prometheus who recreates the human race by throwing his mother’s bones over his shoulder. There is a Hindu Noah, an Incan Noah, and a Polynesian Noah. A First Nation version of the legend maintains that mankind’s wickedness so upset the sun-god Nákúset that he wept a global deluge.

Some creation myths — Genesis, for example — depict God creating land from a primeval waste of water, but another frequently recurring story reverses the process. In Plato’s dialogue Critias we have the oldest surviving account of a land that sinks beneath the waves: the lost continent of Atlantis. In Plato’s original rendering, Athens is said to have ‘checked a great power that arrogantly advanced from its base in the Atlantic Ocean to attack the cities of Europe and Asia’. That power was Atlantis — an empire ruled by descendants of Poseidon, ‘a powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings’. Athens rose up and subdued Atlantis, but her triumph was overtaken by natural disaster: in ‘a single dreadful day and night, all [Athens’s] fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished’.


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