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USF professor digs into ancient secrets, like lost city of Atlantis


As a teenager, Philip Reeder envisioned a dream career: working for the National Geographic Society, traveling the world and making discoveries. His father told him to go for it, so he did. "And, really, I ended up kind of doing that.'' He doesn't work for National Geographic, but as an underground map-maker with the University of South Florida, he does travel the world, and he has taken part in what may be a blockbuster discovery: the lost city of Atlantis.

Trouble is, we may never know for sure.

Reeder isn't ready to speculate on what's under the mud at Doñana National Park in southwest Spain. But maps he has made from tests show unusual structures about 12 feet under the surface. Scientists wonder if they could be the remains of the harbors of Atlantis.

The project is featured in a National Geographic Channel special, Finding Atlantis, which first aired in April but is scheduled to repeat at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Reeder worked with a team led by archaeologist Richard Freund, who appears prominently in the special report. Though it features some of Reeder's maps, viewers won't see his face.

"I was left on the editing room floor,'' he says.

Still, his work proved integral. Freund notes that the structures he mapped are massive and ancient and that their location coincides with the site of Atlantis as described by Plato in 360 B.C.

In an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, Freund states, "Dr. Reeder has become one of the most experienced cartographers for archaeological sites in the world.''

Greek philosopher Plato wrote that Atlantis, the shining capital of an ancient civilization, was surrounded by rings of harbors near the Pillars of Hercules, now known as the Straits of Gibraltar. It sank into the sea in one day, he wrote.

The debate over whether it was real or a legend has endured through the centuries. Some sources say it sank, indeed, during an earthquake about 1600 B.C.

Reeder, 52, is a geography professor and director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at USF. He also has worked for 13 years on various projects with Freund, director of the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford.

On most sites, narrow holes are drilled so that archaeologists can retrieve and test samples of the buried materials. Reeder interprets readings from ground-penetrating radar and electrical current, plus powerful metal detectors, and makes maps that help eliminate guesswork.

"It really pinpoints places you can go and dig without wholesale trying to dig everything up,'' Reeder said.

Freund's team incorporates a variety of evidence — from literary and historical records to archaeological, geological and geographic findings — to complete the underground picture. The team has worked on about 20 projects, including the Dead Sea Scrolls caves and the Cave of Letters in Israel; an ancient synagogue in Spain; and Sobibor, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

Typically, they spend a few weeks at a site, as opposed to archaeologists, who stay months or years. Team members turn their findings over to the resident archaeologists and move on to the next job.

Reeder, who lives in Temple Terrace with his wife and three sons, first learned how to map underground structures as a graduate student in geography at the University of Kentucky. He earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.

He has honed his skills during his own 20-year project, finding Mayan artifacts — including what appeared to be a blood-sacrifice platform — in jungle caves in Belize. Freund recruited him in the late 1990s, when they were colleagues at the University of Nebraska.

German scientists Rainer Kuhne and Werner Wickboldt suggested the Doñana site as the possible location of Atlantis after satellite images seemed to show formations of concentric rings under the vast marsh.

The excavation nearby of "tribute cities,'' built on the same design as Atlantis — possibly by the survivors of the disaster — bolsters the theory. By drilling small holes, Spanish archaeologists tapped into wood and pockets of methane gas, indicating the decay of a lot of organic material. Tests dated the material as about 4,000 years old, which also lends credence.

No samples have yet been retrieved from the intertwining structures that Reeder mapped. Even if tests show the remains of adobe brick, indicating harbors or buildings, it's uncertain that the place will be excavated.

Not only is it a national park, Reeder notes, but the unique nature of the topography makes it a United Nations-designated World Heritage Site, like the Grand Canyon.

Without excavating, scientists can draw conclusions only from building evidence to a "tipping point,'' Freund explains.

"It is not like finding King Tut's tomb or the Titanic, but it's what science does. We accumulate data, and if the data suggests that there is more evidence to say that this is the location of Atlantis and that another location is not, that is how a determination is made.''

The team worked at the Doñana site in the summer of 2009 for six weeks when water wasn't covering the area. Members are called in only when the resident archaeologists want them, so Reeder can't say if he will go back.

Should archaeologists excavate and prove that it is the Atlantis site, Reeder says he would be astounded. And thrilled.

"That would certainly be the hallmark of my career as a researcher.''

Reach Philip Morgan at


National Geographic special

What: Finding Atlantis, a documentary about scientists, including University of South Florida professor Philip Reeder, searching for what could be the famous lost city described by Greek philosopher Plato

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, National Geographic Channel

USF professor digs into ancient secrets, like lost city of Atlantis 06/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 4:30am]
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