Form and Content

InAtlantis: The Biography of a Legend, Marjorie Braymer divides her story into twenty-seven short chapters, each having its own neatly defined subject. Numerous black-and-white illustrations clarify the narrative. Plato’s description of Atlantis, for example, benefits from three diagrams that help readers visualize a layout that otherwise might be difficult to fix in the mind. The puzzling writing system of the ancient Maya is illuminated by seven illustrations, and two illustrations from the modern edition of John Lloyd Stephens’ work Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1962) enliven the account found in Atlantis.

By far the most important illustrations, however, are the sixteen photographs and several drawings that show the excavations done at ancient Thera, now the Greek island of Santorini. The complex of buildings found there was dug up very carefully, and the black-and-white photographs of the delicately preserved wall murals can still thrill the viewer who realizes that they date back to about 1500 b.c.

Braymer begins her story with a fifty-page summary of the account of Atlantis that Plato (427-347 b.c.) gives in the Timaeus and the Critias. Plato identified as his source the Greek statesman Solon (seventh and sixth centuries b.c.), who had heard the story in Egypt. The legend of Atlantis ends, in a sense, with Braymer’s four introductory chapters on Plato, and she then goes on to eight chapters that summarize the centuries of sometimes fantastic speculation that culminated with Stephens’ convincing refutation of claims that Atlantis had been discovered in the Americas.

The second half of the book recounts in some detail what becomes the main interest of Braymer’s narrative: The story of Thera, a tiny island (and its encompassing ring of islands) sixty miles north of Crete in the Aegean Sea. Thera became prominent when the French engineers building the Suez Canal needed a source of cement, which was discovered on this small island. Thera remains an active volcano, and many centuries ago it erupted with such force that its central volcanic mountain exploded and left only its outer shell. The steaming sea poured in to fill in the crater, which became what is called a caldera (or “cauldron”). Oregon’s Crater Lake is an example of such a phenomenon in North America. Braymer’s account of the excavations at Thera examines real history and creates a genuine scholarly hero in Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos.