A curious little story from late last week, which whizzed around the world for less than a day before being "explained", concerned the supposed discovery of the lost city of Atlantis on Google Ocean, the latest and possibly most impressive Google Earth add-on.
The original source appears to be The Sun. According to their report, an aeronautical engineer from Chester, one Bernie Bamford, spotted a "perfect rectangle the size of Wales lying on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean nearly 3½ miles down" while "he browsed through Google Ocean". The discovery of this grid pattern, "like a map of a vast metropolis" presented a mystery that, in the Sun's heightened prose, "had oceanographers and geophysicists captivated".
The paper even presented a bizarre column by Plato, either literally or (more likely) metaphorically ghost-written, in which the philosopher contended that the discovery "backs up the theories I outlined in my dialogues Timaeus and Critias back in 350BC". Let it not be said that The Sun doesn't make an effort to educate its readers. There was also a quote from Mr Bamford comparing the image to a ground-plan of Milton Keynes.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, leaving aside the obvious fact that the image was not the long-lost (or, to be more precise, non-existent) island civilisation. Something about the picture screamed "hoax", and I wondered if Google might not have planted the image themselves as part of a PR campaign.
Certainly the timing was, from the company's point of view, impeccable - Google Ocean was launched earlier this month, but many will have been tempted to go Atlantis-hunting themselves. The discovery also came just a week after another story, released in time for Valentine's Day (and also covered by The Sun) that a small heart-shaped island in the Adriatic had been "spotted on Google Earth". That item undoubtedly had Google's fingerprints all over it, and no "discoverers" were named. I have been unable to trace, or to find any previous reference to, an aeronautical engineer by the name of Bernie Bamford, so I have no idea if it was he who contacted The Sun, or indeed whether he exists.
In the event, it wasn't long before an official "explanation" from Google was forthcoming. According to a spokeswoman the grid pattern was, in fact, an "artefact of the mapping process". To be more technical:
Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor.
"The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data.
"The fact that there are blank spots between each of these lines is a sign of how little we really know about the world's oceans."
That last point was interpreted by the Sun as meaning the blank spots "couldn't be explained". I assume it means that the mapping process only collects data from places directly passed over by the boats, and that this data shows up as the grid pattern. This explanation seems plausible enough. Less clear is why it wasn't available when the report first emerged. Perhaps the good folk at Mountain View simply wanted to milk the suspense. The statement, when it came, included a good deal of background puff about the "many amazing discoveries" that had previously been made via Google Earth, including a forest in Mozambique.
The Sun did have a quote from "one of the world's leading experts on Atlantis", Dr Charles E Osler of New York State University, who allegedly described the picture as "fascinating":
The site is one of the most prominent places for the proposed location of Atlantis, as described by Plato. Even if it turns out to be geographical, this definitely deserves a closer look.
The quote from Dr Osler makes him sound like a confirmed Atlantologist rather than the serious academic he evidently is (he is currently curator of historical archaeology at NYSU). A hundred years ago there were (reasonably) serious scholars prepared to argue that Plato's Atlantis represented the vague memory of a fabulous lost civilisation, whose legacy perhaps survived in the cultures of Egypt and pre-Columbian America. These days the Lost City, like the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs, has become little more than journalistic polyfilla, though the hunt for a sunken city that might have given rise to the legend retains its appeal to the more romantic type of archaeologist. Pseudo-science aside, candidates for the "original" Atlantis are invariably to be found in or around the Mediterranean. The Cycladic island of Santorini, which blew its top around 1650 BC, is generally reckoned the most likely location - though an even more likely explanation is that the story was entirely made up.
I emailed Dr Orser, and he was kind enough to reply. It turns out that he was indeed contacted by a Sun reporter, Virginia Wheeler, who sent him a copy of the picture and invited his response. He confirmed my suspicions that the Sun quote misrepresented his views, but he sounded wrily resigned to the fact:
I told her that I was not one of the those people who think that Atlantis was a real place. I told her that my understanding was that the story was a morality tale invented by Plato, who never actually finished the story. I told her that believers in Atlantis point to the area of the Canary Islands because Plato said Atlantis was beyond the Pillars of Heracles, but that it was really Ignatius Donnelly who made this part of the fable popular....
She asked me whether I thought it deserved investigation and, as a scholar, I said "yes." Of course, I meant that we should find out whether it really is a feature of the mapping! She replied, "Well, we are a tabloid, so . . ." I took that to mean that they would write whatever they saw fit to write.
Orser is indeed an expert on Atlantis, and is currently writing a book on how Ignatius Donnelly, a nineteenth century American politician and writer, created the modern Atlantis industry. (Clearly something of an independent thinker, Donnelly also propounded the theory that the plays of Shakespeare were really written by Francis Bacon.) Donnelly made Atlantis "a real place" thinks Orser, where previously it had been seen as myth. He added,
I taught a course called "Fantastic Archaeology" for many years in which I lectured about Atlantis, but demonstrated why I believe it is not a real place. The object of the course was to teach students how archaeologists gather and evaluate evidence. So, I suppose it's really easy to become an expert on pseudo-archaeology.
Especially if you take the trouble to speak to journalists from The Sun.