Sunken Cities – reviving interest in ancient Egypt

(Last Updated On: June 14, 2022)

The 2016 Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum in London helped to reinvigorate the world’s interest in all things Ancient Egypt with an evocative display of groundbreaking underwater discoveries.

Sunken Cities - capturing the discovery of a large statue
Capturing on film the discovery of a large statue dump near the Serapeum in Canopus. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Hilti Foundation/Discovery Channel/Franck Goddio

New technology, ancient marvels

The show brought together an impressive collection of artefacts discovered on the seabed around the port city of Alexandria where the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once stood. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, these harbour cities flourished over 2,500 years ago at a time when trade connections between Greece and Egypt were strong and when pharaohs still ruled. However, this age of prosperity was not to last with earthquakes and tidal waves resulting in the abandonment of the two cities, which were both completely submerged in the AD 700s.

Led by underwater archaeologist Frank Goddio and his team, excavations uncovered a surprising range of shrines, statues, gold jewellery and the largest number of sunken ships ever found in Egypt. Although these lost cities were known to archaeologists as early as 1933 thanks to a local diving survey, it was not until 1996 that technological advancements meant that the ruins and artefacts could be safely dug up from the Nile delta silt that had originally submerged the cities.

Colossal statue of a pharaoh
Colossal statue of a pharaoh, reassembled underwater after excavation and preliminary cleaning. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

The exhibition focusedd on the period between 650 BC, and the Greek arrival in Egypt, and 51-30 BC when the last pharaoh of Egypt would rule. Additional pieces on loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were presented alongside the objects discovered in the waters and gave the show a broad historical context while descriptions detailed how the artefacts were used and what significance they held. Much like the traders of the Mediterranean would have done in ancient times, the first object visitors encountered was the colossal statue of Hapi, the Egyptian personification of the Nile’s annual flood, worshipped for prosperity and fertility. Standing upright, this incredible sunken find was one of many in a collection of exhibits that revealed how the two ancient cities were greatly influenced by neighbouring Greece and how this would affect the whole of Egypt.

Trade and religion

Greek traders would have once passed through Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus on their way to cities further inland of Egypt and brought with them coins, wine and oil, indicated by the myriad of vessels discovered on the seabed. With the aid of magnifying glasses visitors could see the intricate details of Greek gold coins along with gold jewellery that suggests jewellery design has not changed all that much since early BC. As well as merchants, these ancient trade cities also attracted religious devotees and were famous for their temples, dominated by the great temples of Amun-Gereb, the Egyptian god who granted pharaohs the divine right to rule. Diverse beliefs were practised here with Greek gods allowed to be worshipped alongside the Egyptian gods. This intermingling of cultures was beautifully demonstrated at the exhibit by the statues of queens, kings, gods and goddesses that display both Greek and Egyptian styles – a statue of Ptolemaic princess Arsinoe II wears Greek clothing while frozen in a typically Egyptian stride.

Stela engraved with hieroglyphics
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

The exhibition also featured the largest quantity of bronze ritual objects ever found. Likely to have been melted down once Egypt fell to the Roman Empire, these objects have been kept surprisingly well-preserved by the layers of mud on the bottom of the Nile seabed. A fine example of this preservation is demonstrated by the striking Royal Decree of Sais, a large stone slab covered in hieroglyphics that document local taxes. Perfectly smooth with pristine carvings, this monumental public order is one of the standout stars of the show. Another stele found by the archaeologists measures 6.1 metres in height and is the largest of its kind to be discovered in Egypt with bilingual decrees that further demonstrate the gradual Greek takeover of Egypt.

Ultimately this show documented a time when the pharaohs of Egypt were in decline with Greek tastes and design altering everything from pottery to temples. It’s this merging of influences that gave Sunken Cities its particular focus and appeal, and with 95% of the ruins yet to be excavated, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus will no doubt capture the world’s imagination all over again.

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