Submerged Ties

The Atlantis Myth and the Lure of Analogy, 1860-1970

Jonathan Dentler


In the nineteenth century, the theory of Atlantean cultural diffusion took shape as new forms of transoceanic communication and mass visual media tied the Atlantic basin more closely together. Often using printed illustrations to support their arguments, scholars suggested that formal similarities between various cultures and civilizations—the Maya, Yoruba, Celts, or Mississippian “mound builders” to take just a few examples—could be explained by a common origin in Atlantis. Such figures used images to draw visual analogies between ancient material cultures, inferring a lost continent or civilization that connected them all.

By tracking the Atlantis theme across various media, this project will contribute to scholarship on the intertwined histories of science, mass culture, and the image. The project explores how notions of indigeneity and culture developed in a transatlantic context, and considers how emergent media contribute to rumor and myth. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history—all fields in formation during the period—were united by a similar set of problems regarding how to study deep cultural origins for which no textual evidence survived. In the absence of textual or physical evidence, knowledge gained on the basis of visual similarity alone seemed to offer the keys to that which remained hidden; analogy helped breathe life into a myth for a supposedly disenchanted modernity.