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Review: Lost Knowledge – The Concept of Vanished Technologies and other Human Histories, by Benjamin B. Olshin 2019.

Reviewed by Thorwald C. Franke, Atlantis Newsletter No. 148 (30 October 2020). With thanks to the editor Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands, who kindly offered this book for reviewing, and to Oliver D. Smith who pointed my attention to this work.

Bibliographical data: Benjamin B. Olshin: Lost Knowledge – The Concept of Vanished Technologies and other Human Histories, vol. 16 in the series: Technology and Change in History, edited by Brill, Leiden and Boston 2019. Pp. 458. ISBN 9789004352711. $179,00. €149,00.

In the 16th volume of the Brill series "Technology and Change in History", Benjamin B. Olshin investigates a fascinating topic: He identifies ancient texts about even more ancient and allegedly "lost" civilizations, and about the technological knowledge lost with them. Olshin concentrates on texts conveying information which, according to our modern understanding, looks odd and impossible for these ancient times. The focus is on a correct understanding of such texts. Instead of judging them by simple modern categories such as fact or fiction, Olshin asks the question which meaning these odd texts had for their authors and readers in the context of their time, and which understanding of history, knowledge preservation and knowledge transfer the ancient authors had.

The volume opens with a preface and an introductory first chapter, in which the approach and the questions to be investigated are presented. Then several chapters with case studies follow: Asian stories of flying machines, stories about magic mirrors from China and other places, Plato's "lost" Atlantis, and finally Plato's story of the Ring of Gyges. Then a chapter summarizing certain repeatedly occuring concepts: Encoding and storing knowledge, transferring knowlege through time, the role of myth, loosing and changing knowledge. A final chapter draws the main conclusions: "What did they mean?" The volume is provided with an extensive bibliography of approximately one thousand entries, an index of names and topics, and a list of figures. Annotations are set as footnotes at the bottom of each page which is very helpful.

The research undertaken by Olshin is fascinating and important at the same time. There is this exotic oddness of ancient texts talking about lost technologies. An exotic oddness which has inspired many pseudo-historians and pseudo-archaeologists to speculate about and search for things which never existed. Olshin brings down these speculations from heaven to earth: We are not allowed to project modern concepts into ancient texts, but we have to understand these texts in the context of their own time: What did they really mean? Which concepts, obviously at odds with our modern concepts, did they follow? These questions are of utmost importance, and the research undertaken by Olshin deserves our strongest support.

The thorough reader will repeatedly experience one strength and one weakness of Olshin's work: On the one hand side, Olshin is capable of asking refreshingly new and helpful questions about the meaning of ancient texts. Questions which are rarely asked by other scholars who follow more traditional lines of thought. Olshin is also capable to directly question traditional positions. – On the other hand, Olshin's considerations often lack a thorough systematization. Nevertheless, as with all innovative works we should rather welcome what is new than criticize the imperfections.

Preface and introductory chapter

The preface and the first introductory chapter do not present the topic to be investigated in a systematic manner. Time and again the reader stumbles upon the sentence "This book focuses on ...", but each time a slightly different focus is put forward. Various distinctions and categorizations are not systematically discussed: What is incredible to us was not necessarily incredible to the ancients: Why then focussing on "odd" texts only? For the ancients, this difference of odd and not-odd did not exist. By concentrating on the odd texts, the author does exactly what he wants to avoid: Projecting modern concepts into ancient texts. – Some traditions of ancient knowledge are no real traditions, whether odd or not-odd, but some are: There are also real traditions of real knowledge, even if they are odd. – Oddness may have two sources: Either mistake and error and misconception in the broadest sense, or invention and falsification. But also not-odd traditions can be wrong and / or falsified. – In ancient texts, there is not only information provided as meant by their authors but also information as not meant by their authors but nevertheless there. – The concept of myth is a "moving target": What we call myth today may not have been a myth for the ancients. Therefore, it may be wrong to call a myth a myth. And even if a myth is a myth, there are many varying and contradicting definitions of myth which have to be made clear as early as possible in the discussion. – Furthermore, magic and myth are not the same and have to be thoroughly separated. – Finally, "philosophical discussion" cannot be treated like myth or magic. Philosophical discussions are exactly what gave birth to science and modern concepts of knowledge. It is strange to see them mentioned together in a list with "folktales" (p. 11).

All in all, it becomes sufficiently clear what the author is aiming at, but a systematic discussion, maybe with a table of categories, would have been helpful, and some of the shortcomings in the following analyses are due to a lack of systematization right from the beginning.

It is furthermore not really true that Olshin's approach is "relatively new" to science (p. 15). The historical-critical approach is a standard in historical sciences, and Olshin's questions go exactly into the same direction as this aproach. Nevertheless, it is absolutely true at the same time, that the historical-critical approach is often not consequently and not sufficiently followed, and it is an approach of an inexhaustible depth. Not only the factual historical events can be investigated by this method, but also the often complicated motivations of historical persons, and subtle implicit messages understandable only for readers of the time. Therefore, Olshin is completely justified in saying: "Finally – at the same time, in fact – there was a great deal of interesting evidence floating around that was being ignored, misrepresented, or not thoroughly analyzed in academic works." (p. x) And Olshin is absolutely right to say that pseudo-archaeologists will come rushing in whereever historians fail to include in their studies satisfying explanations of these accounts of lost technologies and lost civilizations (p. 36). This is exactly what happened with Plato's Atlantis once science rigourously stopped to discuss the possibility of Atlantis as a real place in the course of the 19th century.

This review focuses on the case study of Plato's Atlantis as exemplary case.

Promising insights about Plato's Atlantis

It is great to see how many questions, insights and observations Olshin has found concerning Plato's Atlantis story. Olshin realizes that "nowhere in that preamble [of the Timaeus] is the reader led to think that the interlocutors are talking about myth, at least myth in the modern sense of a fabrication" (p. 200). Olshin has seen that the invocation of Mnemosyne makes Critias speaking like a historian (p. 265). Olshin has even recognized that the old age of Critias is no argument against his memory, but to the contrary an argument in favour of his long term memory (p. 190).

Unlike for most modern authors, the 9000 years of Atlantis are no reason for Olshin to conclude the invention of the Atlantis story without further ado (p. 200). It is realized that the geography of Atlantis is not at odds with traditional Greek geographical concepts (p. 203) and that many facts are presented which do not look at all like fiction (p. 212 f.). Also Plato's geological observation are called "oddly sober" (p. 224). Olshin notes that written records do not fit to a fictional text (p. 215) and finds Gill's explanation for this insufficient (p. 244). Also the detailed and accurate facts do not fit the usual concept of myth (p. 209). Olshin observed aspects which are simply superfluous and thus disturbing for the alleged purpose of the story (p. 266), such as the geography beyond the island of Atlantis (p. 205) or that the Athenians, too, suffer a downfall (p. 210), or the story about handing down the Atlantis story from Solon to Critias (p. 190). Olshin observes that Plato does not give any clear explanation for the circular structure of the city of Atlantis (p. 244) and that modern interpretations of numbers in Plato's Atlantis story contradict each other (p. 250-252). It is clearly realized that many aspects of the Atlantis story are repeated in the dialogue The Laws in a most serious way (p. 197).

Olshin clearly opposes those modern authors who want to see Plato's Atlantis story as an example of a Noble Lie (p. 201). Also Paul Veyne's views on the Greeks and their myths are rejected (p. 239). Olshin questions the idea of a "pure fable" and asks the question for a "peculiar synthesis of history, geological and topographic detail, and mythical structure" (p. 243). All this is very promising!

Reality is rejected

It is therefore unfortunate that Olshin spends only few passages on the question whether the story of Atlantis could indeed be based on a written tradition from Egypt and could therefore point to a real place. The hypothesis of Minoan Crete as Atlantis is quickly dismissed on the basis of two simplistic arguments: (a) It allegedly is speculation (p. 181). (b) The details of the Atlantis story do not fit to this location (p. 258, 384 f.). But here we are at the core of the author's very own argument: Why insisting on a literalist reading like the hardcore Atlantis believers do?! Even for "normal" ancient texts "normal" science rejects a superficially literalist reading. Take e.g. the Histories of Herodotus: When Herodotus writes that Egypt is more than 11,000 years old, nobody in science takes this literally, but not as a mere invention either. Instead, historical-critical arguments are applied: Herodotus meant the right thing but he made a mistake in his chronological estimations. Here we are exactly at the point to ask for similar alternative explanations for Plato's Atlantis, but Olshin surprisingly refrains from considering alternative arguments beyond the modern simplistic alternative of a literally true meaning or a pure invention.

The scholars who developed the Minoan hypothesis are even not mentioned, even not in the bibliography. The names of K.T. Frost, Wilhelm Brandenstein, Spyridon Marinatos, Desmond Lee, Angelos G. Galanopoulos, John V. Luce do not occur, let alone their arguments. Also the important hypothesis about a possible connection of the Sea Peoples with Plato's Atlantis is not mentioned, and also no authors such as Edwin Guest, Wilhelm von Christ, Theodor Gomperz, Emil Svensén, or Rhys Carpenter. Also not mentioned are more recent authors such as Massimo Pallottino, Herwig Görgemanns, Eberhard Zangger. Since Olshin cites Atlantis skeptical authors from the 1940s and 1950s, it will not be a problem that some of these authors did not publish in most recent years.

Robert Gregg Bury is cited with his work about "Plato and History" (p. 191 and fn. 24) that Plato was serious in his general ideas about history, silently implying that the details are not meant seriously. But two key insights of this article are not mentioned: That according to Bury Plato was serious with his high numbers of thousands of years of the age and development of civilization. And that Bury leaves completely open whether the Atlantis story may be meant true or not. On the topic of Plato and history, at least one other important work is not mentioned although it is contained in the anthology of Ramage (1978) of which Olshin cites e.g. Fredericks: It is the groundbreaking work of John V. Luce, "The Literary Perspective – The Sources and Literary Form of Plato's Atlantis Narrative". Here, and by other authors, we learn that Plato is generally quite reliable concerning history, also in details, and we are introduced into a historical-critical reading of Plato's Atlantis narrative. It is very unfortunate that this work is not discussed in this volume.

At least, Olshin cites S. Casey Fredericks, from Ramage's anthology, that Plato was serious about flood myths in a sometimes euhemeristic sense (p. 259). Olshin demonstrates this reading of myths successfully e.g. with the Phaethon myth as part of the Atlantis story (p. 192). On the other hand, Olshin is silent about Herodotus and the age of Egypt and refers only to Thomas K. Johansen in a footnote (p. 192 fn. 27) who does not interpret the relation of Herodotus' Egypt and Plato's Egypt in an appropriate way but with the zeal of a very convinced Atlantis skeptic. Olshin mentions only Herodotus' speculations about geology (p. 241), but not Herodotus idea of the age of Egypt of more than 11,000 years. And while Olshin realizes that Plato is talking seriously about many aspects of the Atlantis story in the dialogue The Laws (p. 197), he has not seen that this is valid, too, for an age of Egypt of more than 10,000 years (The Laws II 656e), to which the age of Atlantis is related.

Joining the prevailing opinion

There is a red thread which can be traced throughout the entire chapter about Plato's Atlantis: It is the author's decision to affiliate with the prevailing opinion in academia, documented by sentences such as this: "Only a few scholars – such as Diskin Clay, Christopher Gill, and Harold Tarrant – have tackled Plato’s account directly, and this chapter will cite those studies extensively." (p. 182, cf. also pp. 201, 386) Especially the interpretation of Christopher Gill, though a moving target in itself over the years, has influenced him.

This decision comes time and again into heavy conflict with the author's own approach as can be seen throughout the whole chapter. While his own approach is open for the question of possible realities of all sorts meant by Plato, the prevailing opinion sees only a "pastiche" of materials and "general truths", so an invention by Plato in the end, and no real transfer of knowledge over time. When Plato says that something is true, then this is interpreted as a sign of fiction. When Plato presents facts and details and numbers, this is interpreted as a means to hide fiction and create the effect of verisimilitude, i.e. a "reality effect". When Plato points to sources, it is interpreted in the same way. (p. 211, 242 f., 248-250, 259, 265-267) – By this method, Olshin's initial approach, this fascinating and reasonable approach, is choked to death.

The result are numerous self-contradictions and factually wrong statements. On the one hand side, the Atlantis story is described as reasonable and reality-like (see above), but on the other hand it is called "fanciful" (p. 4), even more "fanciful" than stories about flying machines! Furthermore, a "fantastical" tone is implicitly attributed to the Atlantis story (by saying that there is no such fantastical tone in The Laws; p. 196). – On the one hand side, it is said that "Plato himself does not comment on the matter of whether or not the Atlantis story is fabrication" (p. 211, 258), but on the other hand side it is noticed well that Plato calls the story a true story (see above), but this is interpreted as a sign of fiction following the prevailing opinion in academia. – On the one hand side, it is reported that a scholar "has ... pointed out that the claim in Timaeus of veracity for what appears as a mythical story is not that unusual in Plato" (p. 259), but on the other hand side the very same scholar is cited with "Plato introduces no other illustrative narrative into his dialogues with such affirmations of its factual truth" (p. 265). – On the one hand side, it is said that "historical events, particularly in Plato’s times, were not easily verifiable in terms of written records or systematic archaeological investigations" (p. 269), but on the other hand side this is the exact opposite of what Plato claims and what Crantor claimed to have (allegedly) done, which is not at all impossible since Solon and Plato and many other Greeks were indeed in Egypt, and still today modern scholars draw historical knowledge from Egyptian texts available at Plato's time. – Last but not least, it is said that Plato's "text simply does not provide specific enough information" for searching Atlantis in the real world (p. 258). But this runs counter to the realization that Plato is very specific about chronology and geography (see above). Of course, Atlantis could not be found at the described place in the Atlantic sea in front of the straits of Gibraltar, as became clear by the development of the natural sciences in the 19th century (not earlier), but the reason why Atlantis has not been found yet is surely not a lack of precision.

Following the prevailing opinion, Olshin has accepted a reading of Plato's Atlantis dialogues which sees ambiguity everywhere. An exemplary case is the hiding away of a clear turn in the plot at the beginning of the Timaeus: First, Socrates asks the dialogue participants for a clearly invented, artificial story as an illustration for this ideal state, based on the experience and knowledge of them. But then, Critias offers a real story instead, and this is the turn in the plot. But many scholars hide this turn away, and read the Timaeus as if Socrates words about the plan to invent a story would fully apply to Critias' story, what they cannot, naturally. Also Olshin has not realized this turn in the plot (pp. 183, 264), and concludes an ambiguity which is not there. Olshin also derives ambiguity from the idea that all the facts and details in Plato's Atlantis story were only inserted to create the effect of verisimilitude (p. 213) – but what if not? Ambiguity is drawn also from various statements about the written word in various of Plato's dialogues (p. 215). But many scholars agree today that these statements do not contradict each other. But in order to declare Atlantis a fiction, this alleged ambiguity of Plato in respect to the written word still comes in handy for certain scholars.

Following the idea of the prevailing opinion that Plato's Atlantis story is a kind of novel (p. 256 f.), i.e. a text of which both, author and reader, know that it is ficitonal, Olshin time and again compares the Atlantis story with the works of other fictional authors – but they all lived only much later than Plato, and like the Atlantis skeptics he is relying on, he cannot bridge the gap of several centuries between Plato and the first novel-like texts. So Olshin compares Plato e.g. to Plutarch from the early 2nd century AD (p. 211, 258), Lucian from the 2nd century AD (p. 211, 258), Antonius Diogenes from the 2nd (?) century AD (p. 210), Proclus from the 5th century AD (p. 214), Photios from the 9th century AD (p. 211), and finally he points to the Renaissance mystics (p. 322). All these comparisons do not prove anything.

Following the idea of the prevailing opinion, the dialogue participant Critias is interpeted as Critias the tyrant (p. 190), and therefore the chain of tradition within Plato's family is considered contradictory (p. 190). Alternative solutions are not discussed. – King Atlas of Atlantis is identified with titan Atlas from Greek mythology (p. 237). This is most probably wrong.

Completely against his own approach, Olshin does not say a word about whether Plato's Atlantis story may contain lost knowledge. Transfer of knowledge is expected only in a figurative, mythical sense. There is no investigation of whether Plato was right in saying that the Greeks once knew how to read and write and then lost this art again. There is no investigation into whether Plato's statements about ancient chariot types are correct. There is no research into whether Plato may have reported a lost art of hydraulic engineering. There is no investigation as to whether the religious ritual described points to a past time. All this is considered from the outset to be Plato's invention to achieve "reality effects" and is therefore not even discussed.

Distorted reception history

Following the authors of the prevailing opinion in academia, the reception history of Plato's Atlantis dialogues is presented in a completely distorted way, althemore since Olshin is heavily relying on the completely flawed article "Crantor and Posidonius on Atlantis" by Alan Cameron, 1983. Meanwhile at least two other authors besides me, Nesselrath and Tarrant, expressed the opinion that this article is centrally based on a wrong translation. Olshin also quotes almost approvingly that infamous, irresponsible sentence by Cameron which reads "it is only in modern times that people have taken the Atlantis story seriously; no one did so in antiquity" (p. 257).

Crantor's statement about Plato's Atlantis is interpreted according to Tarrant who thinks that Crantor did not talk of history, because historia in Proclus' work has another meaning than in Crantor's time. But Tarrant overlooked that Crantor's statement is still about history when considering the context. Besides the fact that Crantor was the first author of a well-known commentary on Plato's Timaeus and no ancient author reports of any dispute between this commentary and belief in the existence of Atlantis. – The testimony of Theoprastus, disciple and direct successor to Aristotle, in favour of the existence of Atlantis is omitted by Olshin. Also omitted are e.g. Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, Tertullian. – Strabo's and Posidonius' view are presented in a completely distorted way (p. 261-263). Both Strabo and Posidonius clearly express the opinion that it is "better" to assume the existence of Atlantis than to doubt it. It is also wrong that Diodorus wrote about Plato's Atlantis (p. 182).

Proclus did not only interpret the Atlantis story by symbolism (p. 263), he interpreted it at the same time as a real historical tradition, as did other Neoplatonists. – Also Oviedo did not talk about Atlantis, although this mistake is repeated time and again in scholarly works (p. 383). Oviedo talked about Atlas and the Hesperides, not about Atlantis.

And it is wrong that modern speculation about a possible existence of Atlantis began with Ignatius Donnelly (p. 177). Donnelly was indeed successful in popularizing Atlantis as a pseudo-scientific topic, but the chronology was just the other way round: Donnelly lived in a time when science ceased to think about Plato's Atlantis as a possibly real place, and started to accept the nowadays prevailing one-sided opinion that Plato's Atlantis is an invention.

It is astonishing that Olshin does not talk about Aristotle's testimony about Plato's Atlantis. Obviously he does not see any such testimony, since he sees no author contemporary to Plato giving a testimony about Atlantis (p. 257). But at the same time, all the scholarly authors cited by Olshin claim such a testimony by Aristotle! Alan Cameron, Harold Tarrant, Christopher Gill, Diskin Clay: They all write that the invention assertion about Plato's Atlantis in Strabo 2.3.6 is a direct citation from Aristotle. But Olshin refrains from repeating this claim. Why this? There is a clear and simple reason for this: In 2010, English 2012, a book under the title "Aristotle and Atlantis" had been published which heavily undermined this claim. Therefore Olshin wisely refrained from repeating it. But he has forgotten to mention the reason that and why he deviates in such a well-known question from his main sources, and he did not include this book in the bibliography.

Platonic Myths

Only very late, on page 350, the author puts forward a definition of mythos as Plato understood it. This is far too late! Such a definition was needed right from the beginning. At least, the definition given by Mott T. Greene is quite correct which is not a matter of course. And yes, Plato has a clear distinction between mythical metaphor and empirical knowledge (p. 193). And yes, the concept of the eikos mythos is of importance! (p. 268) But the interpretation of Platonic Myths as a representations of reality "as in a glass darkly" is too mythical to fit to Plato's concept of mythos (p. 268).

It is true that Plato rejected absolute knowledge about the natural world, and therefore also about history (p. 270), but this does not mean that he saw only fable and invention. It is completely wrong to interpret the analogy of the Cave as a mythos in Plato's sense (p. 269). It would have been helpful, too, if the author wouldn't have used the word "tale" to talk about the Atlantis story, because it is not a tale (pp. 177 ff.). It is presented as an allegedly reliable historical tradition – whether true or not true: It is neither a mere tale, nor a myth, nor a mythos. Olshin's suggestion of a "packaged myth" is not so wrong (p. 258, 265), but the aspects are weighed differently than Olshin assumes. It is more modern than he thinks. The main meaning is not in the details (p. 261).

Concerning the presented interpretation of the word paideia in the Platonic Myth of the Politicus by Christopher Gill, "which might seem authentically historical (or pre-historical), but which is gradually revealed as a functional fable" (p. 213), we have to contradict: paideia (Politicus 268d) is directly related to the fact that an unnecessarily long mythos is told from which only a small part is needed for the problem at hand. Nothing more. – Concerning the Platonic Myth around the Ring of Gyges, it is important to point out that Plato clearly identifies it as a mythos by the verb mythologousin (Republic II 359d), whereas the Atlantis tradition is clearly identified as a logos in opposition to a mythos.

Minor issues

The intercultural comparison of Plato's geography with Korean maps is legitimate and interesting (pp. 207 f.). Nevertheless, the similarities are too weak and other explanations too strong in order to support this. – The Greek word Atlantis is not exactly a "possessive form" of the name Atlas (p. 236), e.g. in the sense of a genetive, but a patronymicon. – On p. 350, Mott is the first name, not the surname of Mott T. Greene.

In the bibliography at least the following works are missing (besides the missing works mentioned until now): By Heinz-Günther Nesselrath the great Kritias commentary from 2006, one of the most important scholarly works on the topic. By the Oxford scholar Stephen P. Kershaw "A Brief History of Atlantis – Plato's Ideal State" from 2017; although it is a very flawed book, it represents contemporary scholarly work on the topic. And last but not least by the great egyptologist and cultural anthropologist Jan Assmann the works about the Cultural, Communicative and / or Collective Memory.


The topic of this book is fascinating. The approach is great. Many refreshing ideas were created. We have to encourage the author to continue with his research and to stay true to his approach. The book impresses by the variety of case studies, by the attempt to draw intercultural comparisons and maybe even yet unknown intercultural connnections through the ages. It would be helpful under the perspective of this approach, to keep the tension between contradicting scholarly opinions. Identifying a problem might be more helpful and a greater contribution to scientific progress than trying to solve the problem at the same time.

It is a pity that this book failed to live up to its own approach when it came to Plato's Atlantis. But the failure on Plato's Atlantis is only half a failure here, because Olshin has unintentionally revealed the absurdity of the prevailing opinion, and by his approach he still has the saving remedy in his own hands. Plato's Atlantis is a minefield and a topic of unfathomable depth and complexity. We have seen once again the sad condition of the prevailing opinion about Atlantis and its impact on works relying on it: Dated knowledge is repeated time and again, disproved scholarly articles are still cited, certain works have only a silent though obvious impact and are not cited for whatever reasons, contradictions are not dissolved, certain topics are avoided, false trails are laid out, etc. etc. – It is a mess, which becomes more and more unbearable. Rarely has a book brought to light the failure of the prevailing opinion on Plato's Atlantis more clearly than this one. It seems that we are approaching a change in paradigm concerning Plato's Atlantis.        Contents Overview
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