Review of "Hunting Atlantis" S01E01

In its first episode, "Mystery of the Golden King," Discovery's "Hunting Atlantis" proves itself an incompetent imitation of television.

The much-delayed premiere of Hunting Atlantis is finally upon us. After the show was quickly pushed from Discovery’s schedule following an online dustup over accusations that racists, colonialists, and imperialists used the Atlantis story to push oppressive agendas (it was, after all, popular with the Nazis), the series debuted at the unusual time of 9:09 PM ET, following an extended edition of the popular series Expedition Unknown, whose padded runtime was intended to boost Atlantis’s debut audience.

The series follows the fabulous European vacation of screenwriter and sci-fi novelist Stel Pavlou and volcanologist Jess Phoenix, neither of whom have any relevant expertise in Classics and therefore approach Atlantis as a historical problem of Copper Age culture rather than a question of Plato’s Classical Greek philosophy. Pavlou operates Atlantipedia, the online encyclopedia of Atlantis speculation. Phoenix is best known as a failed congressional candidate and cable TV talking head.

The story of Atlantis originates in two dialogues of Plato, the Timaeus and the Critias, both of which were meant to explore philosophical ideas. Atlantis appears in no records prior to this, and no ancient writer offered any additional evidence to testify to the reality of Atlantis. The story as we have it is a creation of Plato’s imagination, but that has not stopped many from trying to prove that Plato modeled the story on something real. Because the story of Atlantis as written cannot be literally true—Athens did not exist in 9,600 BCE alongside Atlantis, for example—every believer in the Atlantis story has to pick and choose which parts of Plato to accept and which to reject, inevitably meaning that they are hunting something that is not the Atlantis of Plato. At best, they hope to find his inspiration. At worst, they imagine that they have outdone Plato by alone discovering a truth hidden in the text, some secret reality that the words would only support if the world recognized their genius.

Hunting Atlantis revolves around Pavlou’s speculation that Plato was wrong about the date of Atlantis’s destruction. Instead of occurring in 9600 BCE as Plato states, he believes it happened around 4900 BCE because he assumes that Plato relied on an Egyptian king list to date the fall of Atlantis. Therefore, the error came in translating the king list into calendar years because some of the kings ruled concurrently and others’ reigns were listed incorrectly.

Pavlou uses the list given by the Egyptian priest Manetho several decades after Plato as the closest analog to what Plato might have known, but doing so runs into a few problems. First, the Greeks did not have an Egyptian king list until Manetho wrote one for them, so it is unclear how Plato would have access to information not in regular circulation in Greece. Herodotus a century earlier estimated an aggregate total and gathered some out of sequence, confused information, gleaned secondhand, which is likely the only facts Plato would have had. Herodotus reckoned (estimated, actually, at three generations per century) all Egyptian history to have lasted 11,340 years (Histories 2.142), so if Plato were inspired by Egypt, he would locate his story somewhere within the limits of history as known to him. But the bigger problem for Pavlou is that the king lists as we have them from Manetho are corrupt, revised and rewritten, often by Christians in order to conform to Biblical ideas about history. Thus, the list as we have it has severely cut the reigns of the demigods, following Christian ideas that their extraordinary length—in the hundreds of years—had to represent lunar months and not solar years, as the Christian writers Panodorus, Annianus, Africanus, and Eusebius declared. (John Malalas, uniquely, turns years into in days!) Any argument that starts from the proposition that the Christian interpretation of Manetho can be projected back to ancient Greece is doomed to failure. While we do not have the original numbers, George Syncellus’s account of the forgery The Book of Sothis, passing as Manetho’s work, is predicated on “reducing” what he says was Manetho’s original 12,843-year predynastic chronology down to 1,183 years.

Pavlou alleges that Plato claimed that date of 9,000 years came from Solon counting generations backward to reach the date, but that is simply false. In the Timaeus Plato makes Egyptian priests say that Athena founded Athens and that “She founded your city a thousand years before ours, receiving from the Earth and Hephaestus the seed of your race, and afterwards she founded ours, of which the constitution is recorded in our sacred registers to be eight thousand years old. As touching your citizens of nine thousand years ago.” Thus, the date is an approximation based on the supposed (and fictitious) founding of cities. In the Critias, Critias simply asserts that 9,000 years passed and attributes the number to priests. The counting of generations is from Herodotus, not Plato, and therefore does not support Pavlou’s allegation that Plato used an Egyptian king list to calculate the date of Atlantis’s destruction.

Technically speaking, Plato doesn’t exactly say Atlantis sank in 9600 BCE. He says it occurred sometime after the (fictitious) war between Athens and Atlantis, which allegedly took place around 9600 BCE. He is also inconsistent, since that is the year of the founding of Athens in the Timaeus. The two versions don’t entirely match—since he was making it up.

But Pavlou’s radical redating of Atlantis’s demise to align with his ideas about Noah’s Flood accidentally gets something right about the Critias. Plato did indeed model the Atlantis story in the Critias on the Near Eastern Flood Myth, of which the Noachian version is the most famous exemplar. At the end of the surviving section of the Critias, Plato has Zeus decide to destroy a morally corrupt Atlantis with a flood in scenes that are patently modeled on parallel versions in the various flood myths of the Near East.

This does not make Atlantis a true story. If anything, it shows how Plato’s version is a literary construct.

Previous Atlantis speculators made use of similar arguments in their own books. Ignatius Donnelly, the godfather of modern Atlantis speculation, openly identified Atlantis as the antediluvian world of the Nephilim before Noah’s Flood—hence the title of his book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. A previous generation had identified Sardinia as Atlantis and likewise linked the ancient people of Sardinia to the Nephilim. Pavlou follows suit with the only real difference being his attempt to align these ideas with those of William Ryan, Walter Pitman, Petko Dimitrov, et al., mostly as given in Ryan and Pitman’s 1998 book Noah’s Flood. Those authors proposed that catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea basin was remembered as Noah’s Flood,despite the continued lack of archaeological evidence to support the Black Sea inundation hypothesis, or any evidence for the transmission of accurate information about such a flood via the Near East deluge myths. Pavlou dates Atlantis to 4900 BCE, but Noah’s Flood places the Flood around 7500 BCE.

That said, the episode itself struck me in exactly how slapdash it was. None of the material I outlined above made it into the final broadcast version. The production assumes the viewer is already familiar with Plato’s Atlantis stories, the underlying source texts, and the two random bozos whose quest we join in media res. With virtually no introduction and no setup, Pavlou and Phoenix plunge us into a museum in Varna, Bulgaria (where Dracula left for England!) to look at ancient gold and copper artifacts from the Varna Culture, which Phoenix calls “advanced,” using the slipshod classification of pseudoscience to imply something that reality doesn’t support. The show dives directly into numerological speculation with almost no background or context. Even for me, who knows all of the source material, their material is so jumbled, scattershot, and out of context that it makes no sense. I have no idea how to review a program that feels like a clip show assembled by a random number generator. I can’t help but wonder if this is due to the online controversy and an attempt to re-edit the show to remove ideas that are rightly identified today as remnants of racist, colonialist, and imperialist ideologies. But without that framework, there is nothing holding the show’s scenes together.

As we head into the first break, Pavlou and Phoenix are diving in the Black Sea for reasons they never quite make clear to the reader, hoping to find a city where ancient Bulgarians processed gold, though the only connection they make to Atlantis is that a dead ancient Bulgarian “looks like” a “king of Atlantis”—a strange claim given that no description of Poseidon’s sons appears in Plato. I imagine that the argument is supposed to be that if the Black Sea flooded in 4900 BCE, then ancient Bulgaria might be Atlantis, but so few facts and so little context surround the rush to jump into the water and shout loudly at rocks and anchors that I hesitate to make it sound coherent by connecting the dots for them.

It’s worth noting that the Varna Culture is conventionally dated to 4400-4100 BCE, making them too recent to be the Atlanteans of 4900 BCE, a fact the show hides from its viewers by alleging that their underwater observations of material from 4100 BCE is “in the ballpark” of Pavlou’s date of 4900 BCE. Sure, just like the Richard the Lionhearted is “in the ballpark” of Donald Trump.

In the second segment Pavlou “discovers” that the Black Sea flood did not take place all at once but took hundreds of years. He jumps to strange conclusions that a new catastrophe has to be found to prove Bulgaria was Atlantis, with a claim that the Bosporus was the original Pillars of Hercules, a claim that he provides no evidence to support. Nor does he explain why we should ignore Plato’s plain statement that the Atlanteans came “came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). If we get to eliminate any inconvenient details, then every place is a potential Atlantis, and none can ever actually be one.

By the third segment, Hunting Atlantis degenerates into a standard cable TV quest show. Our hosts are wandering about outside having adventures as Phoenix looks for evidence that an earthquake struck the Black Sea coast at Kaliakra, 50 miles from Varna—though they are fuzzy on the date or the relationship to the Varna Culture. Sure, the area is geologically active and swallowed a Greek city in the first century BCE, but the show lets any date between 4000 and 5000 BCE by a “hit” for Pavlou’s ideas—ideas that the producers don’t want us to actually hear or think much about. It’s particularly striking that Phoenix, originally billed as a costar, has been reduced to sidekick and barely has a speaking part, while Pavlou gawks and gapes through his narration. Near the end, Phoenix is allowed to talk, but she and Pavlou can only talk over and over about “advanced” cultures, though neither seems quite sure that that is supposed to mean in the context of 5000 BCE.

As we hit the last quarter of the show, Pavlou still refuses to recognize that Plato distinctly placed Atlantis in the Atlantic and therefore plots another sea voyage to scan the Black Sea for evidence of a sunken city for the Varna Culture—again, at least 400 year too late for his own hypothesis—in the hope of “finding” Atlantis. So, wrong time, wrong place, no concentric rings of settlement and no elephants, but somehow nonetheless Atlantis in all the details Pavlou cares to recognize. We go to commercial again so we can hear still more about Discovery Plus, the main topic of the evening’s commercials.

The next segment is so short I’m not sure what happened because we were plunged into a commercial before I figured out what Pavlou was trying to say. I think it was mostly a recap.

After another break, as we reach the end, our hosts join a researcher coring the sea bed to look for signs of ancient human habitation. We watch the team paw through material brought up from the sea floor. It’s not very interesting to me, but if you like Curse of Oak Island, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the Black Sea version. They found nothing, as one would expect.

“That was anticlimactic,” Pavlou says. That really should be in the advertisement.

At the very end of the show, Pavlou sees a metal ingot in Bulgaria of Egyptian origin, and Pavlou sets up future episodes looking for the “ten kingdoms” of Atlantis across the Balkan peninsula and into the Adriatic—which in no way match Plato’s description of a power in the Atlantic Ocean that ruled over North Africa. But when you get to change any and every detail to suit your preconceived notion, anything can fit. And what better place is there to fudge fact and fake history than cable TV?

Hunting Atlantis is one of the worst, most incoherent, poorly written, and badly produced pseudohistory documentaries in its genre. Alan Landsburg of In Search Of… would roll in his grave to see the travesty of a show that doesn’t stop long enough even to tell the audience what the hell it’s talking about. It’s TV made by people who only know of TV from YouTube reaction videos and TikTok reviews.

Reader, Hunting Atlantis just sucks.