The Archaeology of Fantasy

Any child who read the Harry Potter series has probably spent hours imagining and hoping that the world of Hogwarts was more than just a fantasy. Late nights were spent concocting polyjuice potion in the kitchen, and countless hours were lost stalking the mailman on our 11th birthday. Eventually though, we grew out of our fantasies, but we still had a warm place in our heart for Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Hogwarts.

A rendering of Atlantis from the website. Sarmast claims that he found Atlantis after detecting circular like structures near Cyprus, but surely such a glorious empire should yield more material evidence.

Certain legends, however, have withstand the test of time and consistently blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. In Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, he wrote about a war between Ancient Athens and the Empire of Atlantis. This story has spawned countless theories and books about the reality of the lost continent. Some individuals go as far as pouring millions of dollars of resources into locating it by using “archaeology,” such as the case of Robert Sarmast’s “Discovery of Atlantis” project. Modern archaeological methods and geology have disproved the myth. For instance, no one has ever found any physical remains of advanced naval ships, buildings, or bones in any supposed location of Atlantis (Beisaw), and the processes of plate tectonics rule out the possibility of a submerged continent (Feder 220). Furthermore, by learning about the cultural context of Plato’s era, the reader can understand that Plato used Atlantis as a plot device to convey a moral lesson. In his story, the protagonist, the Athenians, defeated the technologically advanced but morally corrupt empire, Atlantis (Feder 200). Therefore, Plato’s primary goal was to extol the virtuous society of the Athenians and the Greeks in general.

Oddly enough, I rarely believed that Hogwarts was real, and yet, before this course, I actually thought that Atlantis existed. They’re both magical places written down on text, so why did I doubt the existence of one but not the other?  Personally, I believe that the primary reason is cultural familiarity. Originally, my unfamiliarity with the ancient culture of Plato’s times led me to indulge in romanticized notions about a lost world. However, once I learned more about the ideals and patriotism of Plato’s culture, I could look past the fantasy. I realized that Plato wasn’t trying to document a lost world. He, like JK Rowling or any other author, was just trying to convey his ideas about his culture through literature.

Therefore, I believe that the public form misconceptions about archaeology because they do not understand the anthropological theories about cultures to interpret archaeological data objectively. On top of material analysis, archaeologists learn about the literature, history, and art of a culture in order to detect cultural bias and sort through the reality from the myth. There’s nothing wrong with the usage of text to locate a site, but it is crucial to familiarize ourselves with the text’s cultural context and history so we can look past our own beliefs and interpret material and written records objectively. For instance, Robert Sarmast became so infatuated with his romantic ideas about Atlantis that he ignored the lack of real archaeological data. I wouldn’t be surprised though if in a couple of hundred years people unfamiliar with Harry Potter and our culture will try to “prove” the existence of Hogwarts.

Actually, Hogwarts has already been found in Universal Studios at Orlando, Florida. This is a joke.


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