This historical narrative traces the steps to unravel, over a span of 40 years, an extraordinary event in which 5% of the dissolved salt of the oceans of the world was extracted in a fraction of a million years to form a deposit more than 1 million km3 in volume. A buried abyssal salt layer was identified with reflection profiling and sampled during the Deep Sea Drilling Project, Leg 13. The dolomite, gypsum, anhydrite and halite in the drill cores paint a surprising picture of a Mediterranean desert lying more than 3 km below the Atlantic Ocean with brine pools that shrank and expanded by the evaporative power of the sun. The desert drowned suddenly when the Gibraltar barrier gave way. The explanation of ‘deep-basin, shallow-water’ desiccation and the notion of a catastrophic Zanclean flood had a mixed reception. However, the hypothesis became broadly accepted following subsequent drilling expeditions. Nevertheless, as experts examined the evaporate facies and sequences of equivalent age in the terrestrial outcrops, weaknesses appeared in the concept of repeated flooding and drying to account for the magnitude of the deposits. The ‘Rosetta Stone’, used to decipher conflicting interpretations, turns out not to be the deposits but the erosion surfaces that enclose them. These surfaces and their detritus – formed in response to the drop in base level during evaporative drawdown – extend to the basin floor. Evaporative drawdown began halfway through the salinity crisis when influx from the Atlantic no longer kept up with evaporation. Prior to that time, a million years passed as a sea of brine concentrated towards halite precipitation. During the later part of this interval, more than 14 cyclic beds of gypsum accumulated along shallow margins, modulated by orbital forcing. The thick salt on the deep seabed precipitated in just the next few cycles when drawdown commenced and the brine volume shrank. Upon closure of the Atlantic spillway, the remnants of the briny sea transformed into salt pans and endorheic lakes fed from watersheds of Eurasia and Africa. The revised model of evaporative concentration now has shallow-margin, shallow-water and deep-basin, deep-water precursors to desiccation.