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Muddying up Atlantis


Roger Catlin

on March 17, 2011 1:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)
Got some reaction from a piece I wrote last week about a National Geographic Channel special on “Finding Atlantis?” and the part played by a University of Hartford archeologists.

Many were along the lines of things such as this from a reader in Columbus, Miss., who said “WOW. We are anxious for any and all of this.” “Great article,” writes a reader from Toronto.

But a couple of other writers take great issue with what was presented.

“You were conned – as was National Geographic,” says one.

It was from Edward Owen, reporting from Madrid:

A documentary shown in the US on National Geographic Channel last Sunday claims that the mythical lost land of Atlantis was buried in marshland on the south Atlantic coast of Spain after an earthquake and tsunami.

The film, Finding Atlantis, was made by a Canadian company, Associated Producers, and fronted by Professor Richard Freund, an archaeologist and expert in the ancient history of Israel at Hartford University in the States.

Professor Richard Freund boasted to US media how he led a determined pursuit to find the Eldorado of archaeology, the  Lost City of Atlantis, believed by many to be just a Greek myth.

“Why are we so fascinated by it?” he asked, “It’s about the beginnings of civilization,” he told NBC Connecticut,” I think we found the best candidate for what was the beginnings of civilization…one of the largest and most ancient cities at the bottom of a huge marsh.”

He said that some of Atlantis’s inhabitants had fled a tsunami to establish similar “memorial cities” which he had identified in central Spain.

His film company, Associated Producers of Canada, was even more upbeat in its blurb for the National Geographic Channel premiere: “Besides identifying the location of the city, they discovered a stele that may have stood at the entrance to the ancient civilization. It records the long lost symbol of Atlantis.”

But the film’s claim is dismissed as having no basis in scientific fact and of misinterpreting partial results an investigation by a team of distinguished Spanish scientists who since 2005 have been working on the site at a national park and bird sanctuary near the port city of Cádiz.

According to Juan Villarías-Robles, a top anthropologist with the Spanish government’s scientific research body, CSIC, who was part of a team investigating ancient geomorphology and settlements in Donaña, Europe’s largest wetlands, Professor Freund appears to have hijacked their work and put a sensational angle on it.

“Richard Freund was a newcomer to our project and appeared to be involved in his own very controversial issue concerning King Solomon’s search for ivory and gold in Tartessos, the settlement in the Donaña area established in the first millennium BC.

“He became involved in what we were doing and provided funding for probes through his connections with National Geographic and Associated Producers. He left and the film company told us the documentary would be finished in April or May. But we did not hear from him and are very surprised it has appeared so soon and makes such fanciful claims.

“We are planning to offer our own conclusions in a paper to be offered to Antiquity magazine which first published a German claim in 2004 that Atlantis was buried under Donaña.”

Then a German analyst, Professor Rainer W Kühne, said satellite photos of Donaña, west of Gibraltar, seemed to show buried rectangular buildings and concentric circles. The news was picked up by the BBC. It prompted the start of the Spanish investigation.

In 360 BC Plato described an island, with the Lost City of Atlantis with its concentric circles of land and water, west of the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) and since then scholars have argued about how much was fact and how much fiction. Plato wrote it had been destroyed by a natural disaster in 9,000 BC.

Mr Villarías-Robles says the concentric circles the German identified were never found and other circles had either been formed naturally or by man in much later times, probably in the Middle Ages, from when the rectangles are also dated. Nor, he said, are there any “memorial cities” in central Spain.

And no stele was ever found in Donaña.

But the exciting find his team plan to detail is that of “a geological anomaly” between 2,500 and 2,000 BC when “a high energy event” devastated the Donaña coastal area thrusting pottery shards and bones inland. These have been dated as coming from the third millennium BC and indicate there was a settlement there far earlier than at first believed.

“It might have been a tsunami, further analysis is required,” admits the Spanish scientist, “It was 2,000 years before more settlements were built. But you cannot say Atlantis was there, we don’t go in for farfetched interpretations.”

Then Villarias Robles himself wrote:

I am an anthropologist and historian working for Spain’s High Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and am a Ph. D. candidate in Social& Cultural Anthropology for The University of Chicago.  I represent a team of Spanish scientists who since 2005 have done research in Spain’s Donnana National Park and elsewhere in testing the most obvious material implications of Werner Wickboldt’s (Braunschweiger Zeitung, 10 January and 19 February, 2003) and Rainer Kuehne’s (Antiquity, June 2004) complex hypothesis regarding Atlantis and the pre-Roman kingdom of Tartessus.  Members of the team are, besides myself: Sebastian Celestino (CSIC, archaeologist), Antonio Rodriguez-Ramirez (University of Huelva, geologist), Angel Leon (FUHEM Foundation, historian and aircraft pilot), Enrique Cerrillo (CSIC, archaeologist), Jose Antonio Lopez-Saez (CSIC, biologist), Victorino Mayoral (CSIC, archaeologist), Tomas Cordero (CSIC, archaeologist), and José Angel Martinez (CSIC, cartographer and aerial photography analyst).

Early in 2009, four years after it started, UofH Professor Richard Freund became interested in our project (coded name, “The Hinojos Project”), came to visit us and offered his collaboration with a number of geophysical tests that we had planned but could not afford at the time.  Such tests, relatively fast to do but very expensive, were to be carried out by a major engineering consulting firm in Canada, Worley Parsons.  Funding was to be provided by an internationally renown filming company for scientific documentaries, Associated Producers, in return for the production of a documentary on the controversial subject of Atlantis to be purchased and broadcast by the U. S. National Geographic Society.

Because of our common scientific interests, and out of congenial fellowship among colleagues, we agreed to the proposed collaboration.  The tests were carried out in September, 2009.  Professor Freund’s presence at the site (the marshlands of Hinojos within Donnana National Park), together with cartographer Phil Reader and the Worley Parsons team, plus the Associated Producers crew, amounted to less than a week.  These tests were part of a larger, longer investigation that comprehended other tests:  photographic documentation and analysis; core-drilling of the soil; pollen, lithic and fauna analysis of the cores obtained; archaeological survey of the area and probing of previously selected features; and searching of the relevant ancient texts and scholarly literature.

The hypothesis advanced by W. Wickboldt in 2003, and elaborated by R. Kühne in 2004, that Plato’s story of Atlantis might be a poetic or symbolic cover for the historical existence of the kingdom and city of Tartessus, or of an earlier cultural formation in southwestern Iberia, had been seriously argued for long before; e. g., by a number of humanists and scholars of Golden Age Spain such as Juan de Mariana and Jose Pellicer de Ossau in the 16th and 17th centuries.  It is also ancient the understanding that the island enclosing the capital of Tartessus or of Atlantis, or both, could have been located somewhere in what is now Donnana National Park or its vicinity.   As early as 1634 humanist Rodrigo Caro put forward this argument for the city of Tartessus in his authoritative work Antigüedades y principado de la ilustrísima ciudad de Sevilla.  In the 20th century, so have Antonio Blazquez (El periplo de Himilco, Madrid 1909) and Juan Fernández Amador de los Ríos (Atlantida: Estudio arqueologico, historico y geografico, Zaragoza 1925), also from Spain; so have the French Georges E. Bonsor (El coto de Donna Ana, Madrid 1922) and the German Adolf Schulten (Tartessos: Contribucion a la historia antigua de Occidente; Madrid 1924), among others.

In his statements for The Hartford Current, quoted in your article, Professor Freund must be referring to a research project other than ours; a project which only incidentally may concern serious field investigation in Donnana National Park and its vicinity.  His work with us there in September, 2009 was part and parcel of “The Hinojos Project,” which he did not design nor does he lead.

The Hinojos marshland stays dry from May through October.  We selected September for doing the said tests in 2009 partly because of schedule considerations for all parties involved and partly because we wanted the water table to be as low beneath the ground as possible.  His sentence “Part of our project is to help [teams already in the field] figure out how to solve the problem that they have” we find patronizing.   He again must be referring to a project different from ours.   The mentioned “German researchers” (namely W. Wickboldt and R. Kuehne) examined many photographs of 1996 from the IRS satellite, not just one, and eventually identified what seemed to them two rings and two rectangles. The rings were corroborated by our independent images.  The two rectangles, however, turned out to be smaller than those they had figured out.  We identified six more rectangles, two more rings, two circles and a trapezium-like form.   Although most of these forms do look like blueprints of man-made structures, we have reason to believe they cannot date from pre-Roman times.  In all likelihood, they date to the Muslim period (AD 711-1250).  Part of the reason for this conclusion, ironically enough, comes from the geophysical tests of the subsoil we had planned and Professor Freund obliged by getting in touch with Worley Parsons for the task….

No walls of any kind have been found in the research area in the Park.  With regard to the “ritual cities”, Professor Freund might be referring to the site of Cancho Roano, in the middle Guadiana river basin, Estremadura, more than 100 miles north of the Park.  We took him there, out of courtesy.  Cancho Roano is an impressive stand-alone shrine or temple, a rectangular structure surrounded by what appears to be a ceremonial moat.  The entire site occupies a surface about 25 m long and 20 m wide.  Found by accident in the 1970s, Sebastian Celestino and his team worked at the site for many years afterwards and became internationally renown for it.  The structure dates to the late Tartessian period, roughly 600-400 BC.  At the threshold of the only doorway to the inner side of the structure is a stele (apparently put there to secondary use) of the kind known as “warrior steles,” collected since the 19th century from various areas of Estremadura and neighboring locations and dating to the late Bronze Age in Southwestern Iberia (roughly 1000-750 BC).  Sebastian Celestino is also an expert on this side subject.  The original significance and function of these steles is unclear.   When we were at the site, Professor Freund came up with the suggestion that the structure of it (apparently a sacred place surrounded by a moat that was not utlitarian) might have stood symbolically for a micro-replica of a city on an island, this city being the capital of the realm of Tartessus.  I found the suggestion interesting, and worth pursuing it.  Yet in your article Professor Freund seems to assume that Tartessus and Atlantis was one and the same thing, which is a moot point.  It also assumes that the capital city of such a realm was on a island.  The city of Tartessus probably was.  There are some ancient testimonies to that effect.  Yet we have found no trace of the material culture of Tartessus in the marshlands of Hinojos.  Another possible “symbol of Atlantis” is the notched round shield represented in many of the “warrior steles.”  We have no doubt that these shields represent actual shields, made of skins.  Although no one has ever been found in Iberia, some have turned up in Ireland, which was in contact with the Atlantic coast of Iberia in the late Bronze Age.  I enclose a reproduction.  Professor Freund seems to be unaware of this fact.

We did find remains of ancient wood in our core-drilling of the Park’s sedimentary deposits, but the C-14 date obtained is c. 3,100 B. C. instead.  We did come across a layer of methane, but cannot rule out that it is a natural phenomenon.  Methane has been encountered in nearby locations, revealing decay of organic matter carried there by the Guadalquivir and other rivers.

Finally, when talking about “Atlantis in Harlem,” Professor Freund must be referring to the said George E. Bonsor.  He was indeed famous and a good archaeologist, and lived in Spain.  But he was not Spanish.  He was French, with an English background.


  • Mailbag7 CommentsWow! That’s a lot of information I could never have imagined simply from watching that lame show. I mean, my reaction to the show was it was kind of dumb. It became apparent pretty quickly that it was all total BS, not much more than some kind of attempt at infotainment, maybe a bit ‘classier’ than the ufo shows. But now, readng all this back story, who knew. Somebody needs to make a follow-up doc on the making of the first one. Now, that would be interesting!!!I am the author of the “Atlantis refers to Tartessos” theory which inspired the “Finding Atlantis” documentary by the National Geographic Channel. Maybe it will be helpful if I post some comments here.The National Geographic documentary was performed in November 2010. I was filmed on 8 November, Juan Villarias (and collaborators) the following day.The preprint of the second one of these articles was posted here: posted a very brief review (unfortunately with some minor mistakes) of the preliminary results of the archaeological expedition of the team headed by Celestino and Villarias here: E.P. Grondine on March 18, 2011 12:13 PMI am Ed “E.P.” Grondine, and for many years I have been trying to estimate the impact hazard, including the hazard posed by impact mega-tsunami. I used the archaeological and geological records to do this.It seems likely to me that the evidence from Spain of a devastating tsunami between 2,500 – 2,000 BCE is most likely tied with other devastating events at 2,360 BCE, including the abrupt de-population of Malta.By Gary L. Udovich on March 26, 2011 2:51 PMBy Werner Wickboldt on April 29, 2011 5:57 PMBy Rainer W. Kühne on May 18, 2011 11:12 AM(1) Wickboldt thinks that the Sea Peoples came from Atlantis. I think that the Egyptian report on the Bronze Age Sea Peoples and a probably Greek report on the Iron Age Tartessos are two independent historical elements of Plato’s Atlantis tale.Further remarks on Wickboldt’s comment:(2) Wickboldt thinks that Atlantis was destroyed around 1200 BC. I disagree. Plato described Atlantis as having triremes, channels, large harbours, sacrifice of bull, knowledge of writing, urbanization. All these cultural elements appear in Andalucia not before 800 BC.(4) By the way, the concentric circles which Wickboldt claims to see in satellite photos (and which he says are the remains of the harbours of Atlantis) do not exist. Neither in the photos he presented nor in the aerial photos which Sebastian Celestino’s team and Richard Freund’s team have taken. The regular structure which Richard Freund has detected has a diameter of some 100 meters, in contrast to Wickboldt’s circles of up to 6 kilometres diameter.
  • (3) The idea that the capital of Tartessos-Tarshish-Atlantis was situated in the marshes of the Donana National Park was suggested already by Adolf Schulten, “Realencyclopaedie der classischen Alterthumswissenschaften” in 1932 (entry “Tartessos”).
  • (1) Isaiah 23.10 states “Overflow thy land as a river, o daughter of Tarshish, there is no girdle any more” (translation by King James bible). This passage can be understood as a flood which destroyed Tartessos-Tarshish and its neighborhood. This idea has been suggested by J. B. Tsirkin, “The Phoenicians and Tartessos” in 1997.
  • (2) Wickboldt thinks that Atlantis existed centuries before Tartessos. I think that Tartessos-Tarshish was the model for Plato’s description of the geography of Atlantis.
  • As Werner Wickboldt states, I do not share his opinion about Atlantis.
  • Hallo, I am the original author of locating the side of Atlantis inside the Marshes of Hinojos, a part of the National Parque of Donana. Reports on a lecture I read on 8. 01.2003 you may read on and Kühne adopted my hypothesis and made it for his own. Inside his article in he refers to me in an irritating manner. Kühne believes that Atlantis is a myth and never existed. Tartessos should have been the base to Platos Atlantis but no report exists on a catastophic submurge of Tartessos. I suppose that Atlantis had been destroyed before 1200 BC during the second half of the second millenium BC by a high energy event. Tartessos may have been build up upon the ruins of Atlantis.
  • I was truly surprised that National Geographic would allow such unsupported speculation to be aired. Thank you Mr. Khune for giving the background on the show. I do believe Plato was extremely accurate with both his physical description and dating of Atlantis, and this particular location does not reflect that description nor its dating. That is why I am so surprised with National Geographic, since they obviously had to be aware of this information prior to the programs inception. As we learn more about this time period (15,000 B.C. – 8,000 B.C.) the possibility of Plato’s Atlantis becomes stronger, as we are learning that we were far more sophisticated both culturally and technologically than had previously been suspected for these timeframe. Although I applaud the sentiment behind the search for Atlantis, I do believe that a more scrutinous eye should be cast upon the problem.
  • On the North American side of the Atlantic Ocean, some strata have been recovered along the east coast indicating a large tsunami ca 1,000 BCE. I would expect corresponding strata to be found along the Atlantic coast of Europe.
  • I greatly enjoyed this concise report on current Spanish archaeological work in coastal areas, and thank the blogger for relaying it.
  • Hi –
  • I hope that these comments may be helpful.
  • A very brief version of my Tartessos = Tarshish = Atlantis theory can be found here:
  • My theory was published here:
  • My theory was published in the June 2004 issue of the journal “Antiquity”. My scientific article inspired the team headed by Sebastian Celestino Perez and Juan Jose Villarias Robles to perform the archaeological and geological expedition in the Donana National Park. Their work began in 2005. They performed two expeditions in the Marisma de Hinojos to test the theory. The first one (for one week) in July 2006 and the second one (for five weeks) in August and September 2009. Richard Freund and collaborators contributed significantly to the geological and geophysical work of the second expedition. I am not a member of the two teams, but I stay in contact with them.
  • By Rainer W. Kühne on March 17, 2011 1:53 PM
  • By Frank Fong on March 17, 2011 4:33 AM