In the 14th century, a small port near Holderness, England, vanished into the sea. The town, Ravenser Odd, had been ravaged by two floods: the first overwhelmed the town’s abbey, leaving the streets full of human remains. The second, according to eyewitnesses, caused a “towering wall of water” to surround the village and swallow it. The residents fled, and Ravenser Odd was never heard of again. Now, scientists from the University of Hull have a plan to uncover “Yorkshire’s Atlantis.”
Daniel Parsons, a professor in sedimentology, was on a family beach trip when he first heard about the town. He told The Guardian that while talking to historian Phil Mathison, he learned that local fishermen scouting for lobsters had seen disturbances on the surface of the water at low tide. This initial conversation sparked Parson’s interest in the sunken town and its location. As a geoscientist he was just the person to try to find it.
Parsons’ idea is to use high-resolution sonar systems—which he usually utilizes to study the movement of sediment—to locate the town. Last year’s excavation surveyed about 10 hectares off Spurn Point. It was unsuccessful, but Parsons believes that their next expedition will produce results: “Given the stories we’ve had from the folks on the lobster vessels,” he said, “I’m pretty confident we will find something [next time].”
Parsons has good reason to feel confident about his chances of locating the once prosperous town. Comparable studies of towns destroyed by weather-induced coastal erosion in the Bay of Naples reveal that towns aren’t simply washed away; they leave evidence of their presence on the seabed. For Parsons, who heads the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, this is a prime opportunity to learn from the past. He told Mark Brown, “I think it is a fantastic way to start conversations with people on the impacts of climate change long into the future by using these stories from the past.”
For many of us the news that there is an “Atlantis” off the coast of Yorkshire—a region best known for its tea, puddings, and the Brontë sisters—will come as some surprise. One might wonder what other metropolises, mythical and otherwise, lurk off the coastlines of the world’s countries.
The answer, an elementary search will reveal, is a lot. Some were destroyed by coastal erosion; a few were deliberately submerged by people; others were erased by weather events; and at least one was the stuff of legend before archaeologists uncovered evidence of its existence.
If it is the sunken cities of Greek and Roman legend that you want, you should steer clear of the mythical Atlantis and focus instead on the lost cities of Ancient Egypt and Turkey. The port of Naukratis, sometimes dubbed the “Hong Kong of the ancient world,” lies under a lake in the Nile Delta and, today, is covered by fields. Thonis-Heracleion, which currently lies in the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt, is another story. It was first identified in World War II when a British fighter pilot glimpsed the outline of buildings under the water. In its heyday Thonis-Heracleion was a bustling port, which featured a huge temple dedicated to the god Amun-Gereb. A series of earthquakes between 323-1303 CE forced the coastal cities in the Canopic branch of the Nile into the Mediterranean.
Discoveries at Heracleion have been astonishing. In 2000, divers located the head of the god Hapi, one time protector of the city, in the silt-darkened waters on the seabed. Speaking to Archaeology.org the same year, Franck Goddio, the lead archaeologist on the expedition, described Heracleion as “an intact city, frozen in time.” It was almost like a sub-aquatic Pompeii. Heracleion’s former neighbor, Alexandria has also taken by residence with Ariel et al under the sea: Both the famous lighthouse and Cleopatra’s former palace have been identified by diver-archaeologists.
Egypt is not the only Roman-era city in the Mediterranean waters. The Lycian city of Simena (often known as Kekova-Simena) in modern day southern Turkey lies half submerged in the harbor of the fishing village of Kaleköy. The Lycians were ruled by a succession of foreign rulers from the Persians to the Greeks, Romans, and finally the Ottomans. The city was partly sunk by a second-century earthquake. The beauty of the region and the ease of access to the ruins (you could hypothetically paddle around in them) means that they are vulnerable to destruction from tourism. As a result, in 1990, the Turkish government had to ban swimming and diving off the coast. Kekova currently sits on a list of sites under consideration for UNESCO status.
For those who lived through the sudden destruction of a port or coastal city, such events were ripe for theological interpretation. On June 7, 1692, an earthquake and tsunami conspired to swallow much of Port Royal, Jamaica and between 1,000 and 3,000 people. The cemetery, where Captain Morgan was buried, also vanished. At the time the English colony, which struggled to defend itself from attack, was best known for its sex workers, rum, and pirates, who served as a kind of ad hoc mercenary navy. Rev. Emmanuel Heath, the minister in Port Royal who was an eyewitness to the destruction, called the earthquake a “terrible Judgement of God.” It was easy for observers to put the destruction of the port down to its status as the “wickedest city on earth” and slot it into a theological scheme in which God punishes people with natural disasters.
Yet, even at the time, as Matthew Mulcahy has recently argued, people knew that the problem was geological. As early as the 1670s an English governor remarked that neck of land on which the port was built rested on “nothing but a loose sand.” Modern scientists agree. This is exactly why the Taíno people did not establish a settlement there a century earlier. So far, nautical engineers and archaeologists participating in the Port Royal Project have explored eight of the city’s many buildings. As in Heracleion, the excellent condition of the ruins has led to comparisons with Pompeii.
Eurocentrism means that most people have heard of Atlantis. Less famous, however, is Dwarka, the beautiful mythical home of the Hindu god Krishna. According to legend, the ancient city was built by Krishna himself and was once home to 700,000 palaces made of precious metals and stones. Krishna had settled there after killing his uncle in Martha. The Mahabharata relays that when Krishna left Earth for the spiritual realm, the city of Dwarka and its inhabitants were swallowed by the ocean. The modern city of Dwarka sits on terra firma in the region of Gujarat in Northwest India and is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus. For a long time, however, the legend seemed to be just that: a myth.
In 2000, after nearly 70 years of archaeological research, the National Institute of Ocean Technology discovered evidence of a human settlement in the Gulf of Khambhat as part of efforts to study the effects of pollution. Pottery, sculpture, and human remains have all been discovered but there is some debate about their significance. Carbon dating of wooden samples suggests they are 9,500 years old, but a great deal depends on whether you believe that the small fragments are evidence of an ancient city. Prominent member of the Indian archaeological community quickly debunked the finds. The objects discovered, they pointed out, are very small shards that might be natural geofacts and were collected by dragging the seabed. This method of retrieving artefacts makes it impossible to know where they came from. At best, the jury is still out on whether there is evidence for the legend that ancient Dwarka fell into the Arabian sea.
Some subaquatic cities are actual tourist destinations. Lion City (Shi Cheng City) in China, which was deliberately submerged in a reservoir when a hydroelectric dam was built, is beautifully preserved. The 1,400-year-old city has only been underwater for half a century, and is therefore in excellent condition. Expert level scuba divers are permitted to explore the site and the sculptural lions that stand guard in the water. Similarly, qualified divers can swim near (but not up to) the ruins of Simena, Turkey, or tour them via a glass-bottomed boat.
Given the number of ancient cities poking their heads out of the world’s waterways and beckoning visitors down their mostly submerged steps it is truly remarkable that we continue to obsess over Atlantis—the one mythical city that never existed. What all these sunken cities point to, however, is the same essential point: whether divinely directed or not, human engineering is no match for nature’s power.