New York City
Ten Years Later
Dr. Nina Wilde took a deep breath as she paused at the door, her reflection gazing pensively back at her in the darkened glass. She was dressed more formally than normal, a rarely worn dark blue trouser suit replacing her casual sweatshirts and cargo pants, shoulder-length auburn hair drawn back more severely than her usual loose ponytail. This was a crucial meeting, and even though she knew everyone involved, she still wanted to make as professional an impression as possible. Satisfied that she looked the part and hadn't accidentally smudged lipstick across her cheeks, she psyched herself up to enter the room, almost unconsciously reaching up to her neck to touch her pendant. Her good-luck charm.
She'd found the sharp-edged, curved fragment of metal, about two inches long and scoured by the abrasive sands of Morocco, twenty years before while on an expedition with her parents when she was eight. At the time, her head full of tales of Atlantis, she'd believed it to be made of orichalcum, the metal described by Plato as one of the defining features of the lost civilization. Now, looked at with a more critical adult eye, she had come to accept that her father was right, that it was nothing more than discolored bronze, a worthless scrap ignored or discarded by whoever had beaten them to the site. But it was definitely man-made—the worn markings on its curved outer edge proved that—and since it was her first genuine find, her parents had eventually, after much persuasion of the typical eight-year-old's highly repetitive kind, allowed her to keep it.
On returning to the United States, her father made it into a pendant for her. She had decided on the spur of the moment that it would bring her good luck. While that had remained unproven—her academic successes had been entirely down to her own intelligence and hard work, and certainly no lottery wins had been forthcoming—she knew one thing for sure: the one day she had not worn it, accidentally forgetting it in a mad morning rush when staying at a friend's house during her university entrance exams, was the day her parents died.
Many things about her had changed since then. But one thing that had not was that she never let a day pass without wearing the pendant.
More consciously, she squeezed it again before letting her hand fall. She needed all the luck she could get today.
Steeling herself, she opened the door.
The three professors seated behind the imposing old oak desk looked up as she entered. Professor Hogarth was a portly, affable old man, whose secure tenure and antipathy towards bureaucracy meant he'd been known to approve a funding request simply on the basis of a mildly interesting presentation. Nina hoped hers would be rather more than that.
On the other hand, even the most enthralling presentation in history, concluded with the unveiling of a live dinosaur and the cure for cancer, would do nothing to gain the support of Professor Rothschild. But since the tight-lipped, misanthropic old woman couldn't stand Nina—or any other woman under thirty—she'd already dismissed her as a lost cause.
So that was one "no" and one "maybe." But at least she could rely on the third professor.
Jonathan Philby was a family friend. He was also the man who had broken the news to her that her parents were dead.
Now everything rested on him, as he not only held the deciding vote but was also the head of the department. Win him over and she had her funding.
Fail, and . . .
She couldn't allow herself even to think that way.
"Dr. Wilde," said Philby. "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," she replied with a bright smile. At least Hogarth responded well to it, even if Rothschild could barely contain a scowl.
Nina sat on the isolated chair before the panel.
"Well," Philby said, "we've all had a chance to digest the outline of your proposal. It's quite . . . unusual, I must say. Not exactly an everyday suggestion for this department."
"Oh, I thought it was most interesting," said Hogarth. "Very well thought out, and quite daring too. It makes a pleasant change to see a little challenge to the usual orthodoxy."
"I'm afraid I don't share your opinion, Roger," cut in Rothschild in her clipped, sharp voice. "Ms. Wilde"—not Dr. Wilde, Nina realized. Miserable old bitch—"I was under the impression that your doctorate was in archaeology. Not mythology. And Atlantis is a myth, nothing more."
"As were Troy, Ubar and the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram—until they were discovered," Nina shot back. Since Rothschild had obviously already made up her mind, she was going to go down fighting.
Philby nodded. "Then if you'd like to elaborate on your theory?"
"Of course." Nina connected her travel-worn Apple laptop to the room's projector. The screen sprang to life with a map covering the Mediterranean Sea and part of the Atlantic to the west.
"Atlantis," she began, "is one of the most enduring legends in history, but those legends all originate from a very small number of sources—Plato's dialogues are the best known, of course, but there are references in other ancient cultures to a great power in the Mediterranean region, most notably the stories of the Sea People who attacked and invaded the coastal areas of what are now Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Spain. But most of what we know of Atlantis comes from Plato's Timaeus and Critias."
"Both of which are undoubtedly fiction," cut in Rothschild.
"Which brings me to the first part of my theory," Nina said, having anticipated the criticism. "
Undoubtedly, there are elements of all of Plato's dialogues—not just Timaeus and Critias—that are fictionalized, to make it easier for him to present his points, in the same way that timelines are condensed and characters combined in modern-day biopics. But Plato wasn't writing his dialogues as fiction. His other works are accepted as -his-torical documents, so why not the two that mention Atlantis?"
"So you're saying that everything Plato wrote about Atlantis is completely true?" asked Philby.
"Not quite. I'm saying that he thought it was. But he was told about it by Critias, working from the writings of his grandfather Critias the Elder, who was told about Atlantis as a child by Solon, and he was told about it by Egyptian priests. So what you have is a game of Chinese whispers—well, Hellenic whispers, I suppose"—Hogarth chuckled at the joke—"where there's inevitably going to be distortion of the original message, like making a copy of a copy of a copy. Now, one of the areas where inaccuracies are most likely to have been introduced over time is in terms of measurements. I mean, there's an oddity about Critias, which contains almost all of Plato's detailed descriptions of Atlantis, that is so obvious nobody ever seems to notice it."
"And what would that be?" Hogarth asked.
"That all the measurements Plato gives of Atlantis are not only neatly rounded off, but are also in Greek units! For example, he says that the plain on which the Atlantean capital stood was three thousand stadia by two thousand. First, that's one precisely proportioned plain, and second, it's amazingly convenient that it would match a Greek measurement so exactly—-especially considering that it came from an Egyptian source!" Nina found it hard to temper her enthusiasm but tried to rein it back to a more professional level. "Even if the Atlantean civilization used something called a stadium, it's unlikely it would have been the same size as the Egyptian one—or the larger Greek one."
Rothschild pursed her lips sourly. "This is all very interesting," she said, in a tone suggesting she thought the exact opposite, "but how does this enable you to find Atlantis? Since you don't know what the actual Atlantean measurements were, and nor does anyone else, I don't see how any of this helps."
Nina took a long, quiet breath before answering. She knew that what she was about to say was the potential weak spot in her theory; if the three academics staring intently at her didn't accept her reasoning, then it was all over . . .
"It's actually key to my proposal," she said, with as much confidence as she could muster. "Simply put, if you accept Plato's measurements—with one stadium being a hundred and eighty-five meters, or just under six hundred and seven feet—then Atlantis was a very large island, at least three hundred and seventy miles long and two hundred and fifty wide. That's larger than England!" She indicated the map on the screen. "There aren't many places for something that size to hide, even underwater."
"What about Madeira?" asked Hogarth, pointing at the map. The Portuguese island was some four hundred miles off the African coast. "Could that be a location for what was left of the island after it sank?"
"I considered that at one point. But the topography doesn't support it. In fact, there's nowhere in the eastern Atlantic that the island Plato describes could be located."
Rothschild snorted triumphantly. Nina gave her as scathing a look as she dared before returning to the map. "But it's this fact that forms the basis of my theory. Plato said that Atlantis was located in the Atlantic, beyond the Pillars of Heracles—which we know today as the Straits of Gibraltar, at the entrance to the Mediterranean. He also said that, converted to modern measurements, Atlantis was almost four hundred miles long. Since there's no evidence that would reconcile both those statements, either Atlantis isn't where he said it was . . . or his measurements are wrong."
Philby nodded silently. Nina still couldn't judge his mood—but suddenly got the feeling that he had already made his decision, one way or the other. "So," he said, "where is Atlantis?"
It was not a question Nina had expected to be asked quite so soon, as she'd planned to reveal the answer with a suitable dramatic flourish at the end of her -pre-sentation. "Uh, it's in the Gulf of Cadiz," she said, a little flustered as she pointed at a spot in the ocean about a hundred miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar. "I think."
"You think?" sneered Rothschild. "I hope you have more to back up that statement than mere guesswork."
"If you'll let me explain my reasoning, Professor Rothschild," said Nina with forced politeness, "I'll show you how I reached that conclusion. The central premise of my theory is that Plato was right, and that Atlantis did actually exist. What he got wrong was the measurements."
"Rather than the location?" asked Hogarth. "You're ruling out any of the modern theories that maintain Atlantis was actually Santorini, off Crete, and the supposed Atlantean civilization was really Minoan?"
"Definitely. For one thing, the ancient Greeks knew about the Minoans already. Also, the time scales don't match. The volcanic eruption that destroyed Santorini was about nine hundred years before Solon's time, but the fall of Atlantis was nine thousand years before."
"The 'power of ten' error by Solon has been widely accepted as a way to connect the Minoans with the Atlantis myth," Rothschild pointed out.
"The Egyptian symbols for one hundred and one thousand are totally different," Nina told her. "You'd have to be blind or a complete idiot to confuse them. Besides, Plato explicitly states in Timaeus that Atlantis was in the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean. Plato was a pretty smart guy; I'm guessing he could tell east from west. I believe that in the process of the story being passed from the Atlanteans themselves to the ancient Egyptians, then from the Egyptian priests of almost nine thousand years later to Solon, then from Solon to Plato over several generations of Critias's family . . . the measurements got messed up."
Philby raised an eyebrow. "Messed up?"
"Okay, maybe that's not the most scientific way I could have put it, but it gets the point across. Even though the names were the same—feet, stadia and so on—the different civilizations used different units of measurement. Each time the story went from one place to another, and the numbers were rounded off, and even exaggerated to show just how incredible this lost civilization really was, the error grew. My assumption here is that whatever unit the Atlanteans used that was translated as a stadium, it was considerably smaller than the Hellenic unit."
"That's quite an assumption," said Rothschild.
"I have logical reasoning to back it up," she said. "Critias gives various measurements of Atlantis, but the most important ones relate to the citadel on the island at the center of the Atlantean capital's system of circular canals."
"The site of the temples of Poseidon and Cleito," noted Philby, rubbing his mustache.
"Yes. Plato said the island was five stadia in diameter. If we use the Greek system, that's slightly over half a mile wide. Now, if an Atlantean stadium is smaller, it can't be too much smaller, because Critias says there's a lot to fit on to that island. Poseidon's temple was the biggest, a stadium long, but there were other temples as well, palaces, bathhouses . . . That's almost as packed as Manhattan!"
"So how big—or rather, how small—did you deduce an Atlantean stadium to be?" Hogarth asked.
"The smallest I think it could be would be two thirds the size of the Greek unit," explained Nina. "About four hundred feet. That would make the citadel over a third of a mile across, which when you scale down Poseidon's temple as well leaves just about enough room to fit everything in."
Hogarth made some calculations on a piece of notepaper. "By that measurement, the island would be, let's see . . ."
Nina instantly did the mathematics in her head. "It would be two hundred and forty miles long, and over a hundred and sixty wide."
Hogarth scribbled away for a few seconds to reach the same result. "Hmm. That wouldn't just be in the Gulf of Cadiz . . . it would be the Gulf of Cadiz."
"But you have to take into account the probability of other errors," said Nina. "The three-thousand-by-two-thousand-stadia figure Plato gave for the island's central plain is clearly rounded up. It could have been exaggerated for effect as well, if not by Plato then certainly by the Egyptians, who were trying to impress Solon. I think you have to assume an error factor of at least fifteen percent. Maybe even twenty."
"Another assumption, Ms. Wilde?" said Rothschild, a malevolent glint in her eyes.
"Even with a twenty percent margin, the island would still be over a hundred and ninety miles long," added Hogarth.
"There's still also the possibility of confusion if the figures were converted from a different numerical base . . ." Nina could feel the situation slipping away from her. "I'm not saying that all my figures are correct. That's why I'm here—I have a theory that fits the available data, and I want . . . I would like," she corrected, "the opportunity to test that theory."
"A sonar survey of the entire Gulf of Cadiz would be a rather expensive way of testing it," Rothschild said smugly.
Excerpted from The Hunt for Atlantis by Andy McDermott. Copyright © 2009 by Andy McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.