Lost underwater cities from Ancient Egypt to be revealed in British Museum exhibition

By Culture24 Reporter | 01 December 2015

Major archaeological exhibition to show "beauty and strength" of Late Pharaonic art and culture and cosmopolitan qualities of Ancient Egyptian society

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Archaeologists’ underwater discoveries of two Egpytian cities beneath the mouth of the River Nile, submerged for more than a thousand years before a 16-year excavation programme, will be revealed in a major exhibition at the British Museum next summer.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Around 300 “outstanding” objects, found near Alexandria between 1996 and 2012 having been left behind when the 7th century BC cities Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus disappeared, will be brought together alongside important, rarely-seen loans from Egyptian museums, loaned for the first time since the Egyptian revolution.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
The cities were busy, cosmopolitan cities that once sat on adjacent islands at the edge of the fertile lands of the Egyptian Delta, intersected by canals. The sea reclaimed them by the 8th century, leaving them several metres beneath the seabed in an unclear location.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Although well-known from Egyptian decrees and Greek mythology and historians, past attempts to locate them were either fruitless or very partial. But as the exhibition will aim to show, a pioneering European team, led by Franck Goddio in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, made use of the most up-to-date technologies to find them.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
A vast number of objects of great archaeological significance have been astonishingly well preserved by the sea, including pristine monumental statues, fine metalware and gold jewellery illustrating how Greece and Egypt interacted in the late first millennium BC.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Among a series of sculptures described as “extraordinary”, a 5.4-metre granite statue of Hapy, a divine personification of the Nile’s flood, will greet visitors as they enter the space.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Masterpieces from the Egyptian museums, such as the Apis bull from the Serapeum in Alexandria, will appear alongside magnificent recent finds from the sea, notably a stunning sculpture from Canopus representing Arsinoe II, the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
The Greco-Macedonian queen became a goddess beloved to both Egyptians and Greeks after her death and is depicted here as the perfect embodiment of Aphrodite, a goddess of beauty “who grants fortunate sailing”.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
A complete stela from Thonis-Heracleion advertises a 380BC royal decree of the Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo I, stating that 10% of the taxes collected on all goods imported from the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ into Thonis-Heracleion and on all trade operations at Naukratis were to be donated to an Egyptian temple.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
A wide range of objects will bear witness to the piety of both residents and visitors at these major religious centres. Lead models of barges uncovered in the sacred waterway linking Thonis-Heracleion to Canopus are described as “unique and moving”, associated with the Mysteries of Osiris, the most popular festival celebrated annually across Egypt during the month of Khoiak, from mid-October to mid-November.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Ranging in size from six to 67cm, these reproduce in metal a flotilla of 34 papyrus barges that would have been displayed on a waterway to celebrate the first sacred navigation of the festival.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
According to religious texts, each barge was to measure 67.5 cm and bear the figure of an Egyptian god, illuminated by 365 lamps. The lead barges are lasting testimonies possibly left by people who, long ago, celebrated this festival in the Canopic region.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
“People sometimes assume that when two cultures mix, the essence of each is diluted and, as a result, weakened,” suspects Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, the exhibition curator at the British Museum.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
“This exhibition demonstrates the opposite. It is a rare opportunity to reveal the beauty and strength of Late Pharaonic art and culture, alongside the latest research on the momentous intermingling between Egyptian and Greek communities in Egypt at this time.

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
“We are illustrating this vibrant cosmopolitan world through Egyptian, Greek and ‘hybrid’ artworks, rarely ever displayed side-by-side. It shows Ancient Egypt not as an isolated civilisation, but as the outward looking, influential and inclusive society that it was.”

A photo of a piece of archaeological stone underwater
© Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation
Artefacts from various sites across the Delta, drawn from the museum’s collection, will also be displayed – most notably from Naukratis, a sister harbour town to Thonis-Heracleion and the first Greek settlement in Egypt.

  • Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost World is at the British Museum from May 19 – November 27 2016. Tickets £16.50 (free for under-16s). Book online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to discover Ancient Egypt in

Great North Museum Hancock, Newcastle & Gateshead
An exciting exploration of life and death in Ancient Egypt, the permanent exhibition combines the Museum's own Ancient Egyptian collections with a number of spectacular objects on loan from the British Museum.

River and Rowing Museum, Oxfordshire
Travel down the Nile, decode the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone and write your own name in hieroglyphs. This family exhibition includes dress Egyptian Mummy dress and pyramid building.

Manchester Museum
Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed presents and explores ancient Egyptian animal mummies, prepared in their millions as votive offerings to the gods.
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