The most famous of the settlements under water may be the legendary Atlantis. But there are many settlements around the world that have been submerged in water.
In the 14th century, a small harbor near Holderness, England, sank into the sea. The town of Ravenser Odd was devastated by two floods: the first destroyed the town’s monastery and filled the streets with human remains. The second, according to eyewitnesses, caused a “towering wall of water” that surrounded and engulfed the village. Residents fled, and Ravenser Odd was never heard from again. Now, scientists from the University of Hull have a plan to uncover “Yorkshire’s Atlantis.”
Daniel Parsons, a professor of sedimentology, was taking a trip to the family beach when he first heard about the town. Parsons said that while talking to historian Phil Mathison, he learned that local fishermen looking for lobsters had seen some remains on the surface of the water, where the tide was low. This first conversation ignited Parson’s interest in the sunken town and its location. As a geoscientist, he was the one who would try to find him.
Parsons’ idea was to use high-resolution sonar systems, which he usually uses to study sediment motion, to find the town. Last year’s excavation examined an area of about 10 hectares from Spurn Point. Parsons failed this study, but he believes it will yield results the next time: “Given the stories we’ve received from people on lobster ships. I’m pretty confident we’ll find something next time.”
Parsons have good reasons to make sure they have a chance to find the town that was once rich. Comparable research into towns destroyed by weather-induced coastal erosion in the Gulf of Naples reveals that towns are not simply flooded; they left evidence of their presence on the seabed.
For Parsons, president of the Hull Energy and Environment Institute, this is an important opportunity to learn from the past. Parsons explains this idea this way: “I think it’s a great way to start a conversation with people about the long-term effects of climate change using these stories from the past.”
The news that there is an “Atlantis” on the shores of Yorkshire, known for its tea, puddings and Brontë brethren, will come as a surprise to many of us. One might wonder what mythical and other metropolises lurk on the shores of the countries of the world.
The answer that a basic research will reveal is many. Some of them were destroyed by coastal erosion; a few were deliberately sunk by humans; others were wiped out by weather phenomena, and at least one was just a myth before archaeologists uncovered evidence of its existence.
If what you want are sunken cities of Greek and Roman legend, you should stay away from the legendary Atlantis and instead focus on the lost cities of Ancient Egypt and Turkey. The port of Naukratis, sometimes called the “Hong Kong of the ancient world,” is located under a lake in the Nile Delta and today is covered with fields. Thonis-Heracleion, now on the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean, is another story. This place first appeared in World War II when a British fighter pilot saw the outlines of underwater structures. In its heyday, Thonis-Heracleion was a bustling port with a large temple dedicated to the god Amun-Gereb. A series of earthquakes that occurred between 323 and 1303 AD buried the coastal cities in the Canopic branch of the Nile in the Mediterranean Sea.
The discoveries at Heracleion were astonishing. In 2000, divers found the head of God Hapi, once the city’s protector, in alluvial-blackened waters on the seafloor. That same year, the expedition’s chief archaeologist, Franck Goddio, described Heracleion as “a city frozen in time, intact.” It almost looked like an underwater version of Pompeii.
Egypt is not the only Roman-era city in Mediterranean waters. The Lycian city of Simena (commonly known as Kekova-Simena) is located in a semi-submerged position in the port of the fishing village of Kaleköy, in southern Turkey. This place was ruled by a number of rulers, from the Persians to the Greeks, Romans, and finally the Ottomans. The city was partially sunk by an earthquake in the second century. The beauty of the area and the ease of access to the ruins (you could hypothetically paddle in them) mean that they are vulnerable to destruction from tourism. As a result, in 1990 the Turkish government was forced to ban swimming and diving on the coast. Kekova is currently on the list of sites considered for UNESCO status.
For those who experienced the sudden destruction of a port or coastal city, such events were ripe for theological interpretation. On June 7, 1692, an earthquake and tsunami occurred in Port Royal, Jamaica, in which between 1,000 and 3,000 people lost their lives. The cemetery where Captain Morgan was buried was also destroyed. The British colony, which at the time struggled to protect itself from attacks, was best known for its sex workers, rum (drink) and pirates, who served as a kind of temporary mercenary navy. An eyewitness to the destruction, the minister at Port Royal, Emmanuel Heath, described the quake as “a terrible judgment of God”. For observers, it was easy to reduce the destruction of the harbor to the status of “the worst city in the world” and place it in a theological scheme in which God punished people with natural disasters.
But, as Matthew Mulcahy recently argued, even back then, people knew the problem was geological. In the early 1670s, an English governor stated that the neck of land on which the port was built was “nothing more than loose sand.” Modern scientists agree. This is exactly why the people of Taíno did not establish a settlement there a century ago. To date, marine engineers and archaeologists involved in the Port Royal Project have explored eight of the city’s many buildings. As at Heracleion, the excellent condition of the ruins led to comparisons with Pompeii.
Eurocentrism means that most people have heard of Atlantis. No 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 settled there after killing his uncle in Martha. The Mahabharata relates that when Krishna left the Earth for the spiritual realm, the city of Dwarka and its inhabitants were swallowed up by the ocean. The modern city of Dwarka is located in terra firma in the Gujarat region of Northwest India and is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. However, for a long time, this myth seemed to be just a myth.
In 2000, after nearly 70 years of archaeological research, the National Institute of Ocean Technology discovered evidence of a human settlement in Khambhat Bay as part of its efforts to study the effects of pollution. Pottery, sculpture, and human remains have all been discovered, but some debate has erupted about their importance. Although the carbon history of the wood samples suggests they are around 9,500 years old, much depends on whether the small fragments are believed to be evidence of an ancient city. Leading members of the Indian archaeological community quickly debunked the results. They pointed out that the objects discovered could be natural geofacts (rock shaped by natural forces) and very small fragments collected by the drift of the seafloor. This method of collecting archaeological artifacts makes it impossible to know where they came from. At best, the jury is still undecided on whether there is evidence for the legend that ancient Dwarka fell into the Arabian sea.
Some underwater cities are real tourist attractions. Lion City (Shi Cheng City) in China, which was deliberately submerged in a reservoir when a hydroelectric dam was built, was beautifully preserved. The 1,400-year-old city has only been under water for half a century and is therefore in excellent condition. Expert-level scuba divers are allowed to explore the area and the statues of lions standing guard in the water. Similarly, in Turkey, qualified divers can swim near the remains of Simena (but not as far as there) and tour the area in a glass-bottomed boat.
Given the number of ancient cities that took their heads out of the world’s waterways and pulled visitors mostly down their sunken steps, it’s truly remarkable that we continue to be obsessed with Atlantis, a mythical city that never existed.