Don't Believe All They Dig Up

Basil Boothroyd, a member of the PUNCH Table, has written many light articles and all too infrequenlly for the ATLANTIC,

by Basil Boothroyd

I was reading in the papers about a new bid to find Atlantis, thought to be lost at the bottom of the blue Aegean. It’s certainly the ideal place to look. Archaeologists pick their hunting grounds with care, and it isn’t often they take engagements in places like Manchester or Baffin Bay.

I don’t know how they’re getting on. The first I heard they were just idling out from Piraeus to Santorini, lying around the poop of U.S. research vessel Chain under smiling Hellenic skies. They may have made contact by now, unless they’re looking in the wrong sea, and I’m standing by for their first batch of amazing deductions about how the people lived 12,000 years ago before they were sunk down there. We shall find that they had an early credit card system, I shouldn’t wonder; democratic government, motels, things of that kind, all deduced from bits of jug handle with carved glyphs that nobody can read. Marvelous, really. The man in charge is Professor James W. Mavor, of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and it’s a funny thing, but I think we’ve met. I’ll tell you why later. For now I’ll just say that the whole affair looks like adding another slab to my archaeology resistance threshold, a thing I’ve suffered from as long as I can remember.

I blame it partly on my father, a compulsive earthworks and skeleton fancier who tried to make me share his fun too early. I must have been a terrible disappointment to him. When he trotted me on my little boy’s legs up some megalithic mound in the Mendips and told me I was on Hetty Pegler’s Tump, I could never get a real glow off the thing.

I wasn’t ready for tumps, and I suppose my bump of antiquity got atrophied. By the time I finally entered adult life, I’d seen enough prehistory to make a series of thirtynine programs on educational TV, but I still couldn’t tell Offa’s Dyke from Fingal’s Cave, and had doubts about their authenticity anyway. It’s a lack, and I know it. I miss a lot. When I see the tourists at Corinth being photographed in grinning groups on the spot where St. Paul sounded off with his draft material for the Epistles, I simply can’t join in. If he was ever there at all, I tell myself, he was probably forty feet down in another Corinth altogether; I’ve done a bit of morbid reading, and I don’t forget that when Schliemann loosed his hired shovelers on the site of Troy, they came up with seven Troys before the money ran out.

Still — Schliemann. Some of his deductions would have made Sherlock Holmes jump into the Reichenbach Falls and stay there. The first death mask that he stubbed his toe on at Mycenae, he was off in a flash, cabling the Kaiser: “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.” Nothing of the kind, it turned out soon afterward: some other chap’s death mask, and Schliemann was about five hundred years adrift. But 1 suppose that’s nothing when you’re sieving through whole millennia: it’s only like confusing Columbus and Admiral Byrd, say. But it unsettles me, all the same. How can you rely on such people? I read the other day that a recent find in those parts, a dagger, cooking utensil, or some such, proved that they used to train cats to hunt wild duck. Even I could invent something more credible than that.

One of the things they show you in the Palace of Minos at Knossos is the queen’s four-thousand-year-old water closet. Anyhow, that’s their story, based mainly on a couple of notch marks where they say the seat went. Oh, and some culvert remains, naturally. Archaeologists are great on culvert remains; they come second to loom weights for causing excited screams at digs. This is because the diggers can never get over their surprise that dead civilizations had to go to the bathroom.

I know I’m mean-minded, but I can’t help it. When the tourist guides here in England try to whip me up over the Roman baths, I just stand there. Here were these Romans, miles from home and dying for a bath — what else should they do but make a hole, put water in it, and use that? It seems basic to me. But that’s how archaeology affects me, and no one regrets it more than I do.

There was the Piltdown man, you remember. His pile of old ribs and teeth got plowed up in Sussex, not far from me, and confidently identified as the late property of a Lower Pleistocene going back half a million years. Exciting? British archaeologists were under sedation for weeks. Then someone took another look, with benefit of fluorine tests, and it turned out to be an ingenious fraud or hoax, faked up from a lot of ape components. I took this hard, I must say; though perhaps less so than the local pub owner, who’d changed its name to the Piltdown Man and had an expensive Lower Pleistocene sign painted. He decided to ignore the fluorine test and stick on course, but it must have hit his antiquarian trade.

So that’s another dodgy element. How do we know that Plato, on whose chance remark the whole Atlantis theory rests, wasn’t hoaxing the lot of us, Professor James W. Mavor included? And even Plato only got it from an Athenian politician called Solon, which isn’t what I’d call a usually reliable source. However, if I know Mavor he won t be worrying too much. And I think I do know him.

It was a couple of summers ago.

I was standing up to the collarbone in the milk-warm, tideless Aegean when this nut-brown young American waded idly up, wearing the chiseled Kennedy bone structure fashionable at the time, and said that he was an archaeologist. To be honest, I think I got in first with my own bit of status rattling, mentioning that I’d been in Greece for an entire fortnight of concentrated sloth, and proposed, in my reckless, untrammeled way, to stay yet another week before London reclaimed me for the rat race, road drills, and cold fine rain. And it was then he told me he’d been there for fifteen months and thought of putting in another twelve or so. Some foundation, it seemed, was staking him to an openended mission around the Hellenic littoral, driving metal rods into the beaches and taking coral readings. Perhaps it was sugar. I didn’t listen after that. But I saw him several times during my last few days, standing in the sea, snoozing on the shore, sometimes waving from water skis, often lazing away the long golden morning over a chubby bottle of chilled retsina, but never, that I saw, driving rods into the beaches. He did that early in the day, I think, before the sun made it too hot for work.

I’d forgotten him until this Atlantis story. But I now confidently identify him as the Woods Hole man. No doubt the rod work kept him going until he found the Plato bit and showed it to the foundation’s bursar, who okayed it with hardly a look, and now he’ll be all right for another year or two, swanning it around the islands with an occasional check on his grappling hook for culvert remains. Anyway, that s my deduction, so take it or leave it. It holds at least as much water as the queen’s toilet at Knossos, and if you think he sounds a bit young to be Mavor, remember that the youth of American professors is only equaled, in sleet-swept English eyes, by the liberality of their foundations. Good luck to him, I say, through painfully clenched teeth.

It’s a pity, though, that in my boyhood years I wasn’t fired with more enthusiasm for long barrows, Saxon shrines, and the burial mounds of leading Picts. I could have gone on from there. It would have just suited me, now that I come to think of it, lying around on a poop off the Peloponnese, swinging the occasional lead, and everything found but Atlantis.