Unearthing Atlantis, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1991 (2001 reprint), 355 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-81044-1

The legend of Atlantis has fascinated many over centuries, all the way from Plato to us. Could it be possible for an advanced civilisation to disappear, just like that? Through the rumors, the stories, the myth, what is the true story that inspired Atlantis, if there was one? Are there any lessons to be learned from the fall of Atlantis?

In Unearthing Atlantis, Charles Pellegrino applies his considerable archaeological experience, writing talent and gift for vulgarization to give us an overview of what we think we know, at this moment, about the Minoan civilization, the buried city of Thera and how it all ties into the myth of Atlantis.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Pellegrino is pathologically incapable of sticking to one subject and Unearthing Atlantis takes delight in rummaging through Science’s entire bag of tricks. A gifted polymath, Pellegrino can discourse as easily on anti-matter rockets, archaeology or palaeontology. The result is unique, and a testimony to how much fun the pure acquisition of knowledge can be, both for the scientists and the average readers.

This, unfortunately, can have an unfortunate scattering effect on the unity of the book’s structure. Unearthing Atlantis goes one way, then another and then in yet another direction. Fans of the author’s previous books already know this, but this can be disconcerting for a new reader. Fortunately, a complete index will help if you want to track down specific passages quickly.

It’s not as if your attention will wander, even if Pellegrino’s narrative does: the stories he has to tell are fascinating. From the memorable bio portrait of the driven archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos to the “time gate” (an intellectual device possibly borrowed from Pellegrino’s own scarce Time Gate book, which I haven’t yet read.), here’s a vulgarizator who knows how to communicate the passion of science and the excitement of discovery.

Pellegrino fans will appreciate that this book once more ties into his pet obsessions to a degree or another—most notably the Titanic wreck. This 2001 re-edition of Unearthing Atlantis is touted on the author’s web site as the “uncensored version”, which probably refers to the carbon-dating controversy in Chapter 11. (I believe that it is in Return to Sodom and Gomorrah that Pellegrino explains the highly adverse reaction of Egyptologists to even the suggestion that some of their canon might not match with independent carbon dating.) Fun personal anecdotes pepper the narrative, from Pellegrino’s run-in with Prince Charles’ security forces (an event casually mentioned in his novel Flying to Valhalla) to an amusing desert drama:

”…one Egyptian scholar became so disturbed by news that some of her pottery dates may have to be rewritten that she began to confide in me some chillingly detailed suicide fantasies. Since I was depending on this woman to get me out of the desert alive, I decided not to press the issue. As far as I can recall, she is the only person ever to have succeeded in shutting me up.” [P.265]

In short, it’s another wonderful book by Pellegrino and a perfect example of good scientific vulgarization. Even as far as Atlantis is concerned, Pellegrino is careful to play down evidence of catastrophic destruction in the end of the Minoan civilization, noting that the empire was already showing signs of collapse.

Still, it’s a lot of fun to speculate about a relatively advanced civilization, ready to spring forward yet destroyed by a freak geological event. Otherwise, how different would have been history? Might we already be standing on an extra-solar planet by now? Maybe. Who knows? With enough “What if?”s, it’s easy to make the legend of Atlantis stretch all the way from the past to our future.

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