Sunken cities exhibition a delight
Sunken cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds is now on at the British Museum and should not be missed
Imagine being the discoverer of two ancient cities that have just vanished into the Mediterranean – it is the stuff of archaeological dreams! But for Franck Goddio and his team at the Institut Européen d’archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM), excavating these sunken cities has been their life for the last twenty years.
Situated at the mouth of the River Nile, the two cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were once the centre of Greek trade in the area, receiving goods which were then transported further down Nile river to Naukratis before being distributed further onto Memphis and other sites throughout the country.
Originally thought to be two separate cities, Thonis-Heracleion is said to have been founded in the 7th century BC, along with their sister city of Canopus. The earliest Greek objects found in these cities date to c.650 BC and are evidence of a growing trade between the two countries on either side of the Mediterranean. But it was after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, that trade between the two empires really thrived, and went on for hundreds of years during the Ptolmemaic rule that followed. But in the 8th century AD, these cities disappeared into the sea, never to be seen again, until Goddio and his team started excavations there in 1996.
The results of these excavations can be seen at the stunning exhibition at the British Museum which features over 200 objects from the underwater cities. These objects have been supplemented with a further 100 pieces from Egyptian museums (not seen before outside of Egypt) and pieces from other sites in the Delta and Naukratis from the British Museum’s collection.
The exhibition has tried to simulate an underwater atmosphere with its sound and lighting which is fun and atmospheric. There are lots of images and video showing the objects on display as they were when first discovered, and it is fantastic to see them in situ.
The Greeks embraced all things Egyptian and this is evident from many pieces in the exhibition and includes a most impressive pair of colossal statues of a Ptolemaic ruling couple made of red granite. The ceiling of the exhibition had to be raised to accommodate them as they stand at five metres tall, and they wear not only Egyptian costume but Egyptian crowns too.
The variety of objects on display range from long handled ladles and metal cooking pots to coins, scarabs, statues, a stunning intact stele, a life-size Apis bull made of black diorite and even a water clock. Many of the objects were found around the Temple of Amun-Gereb, which is thought to be the biggest temple in the city of Thonis-Heracleion, and the mind boggles when thinking about how much more there is to be discovered.
As would be expected in a port town, there was a lot of mixing of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other cultures, and this is witnessed by another object: a small sculpture described as ‘an Easterner’. The head of this statuette is of a male, wearing a rather wonderful stiff, pointed hat with ear flaps that are tied in the centre of the forehead with a bow. The face has large almond-shaped eyes, carved in a manner which indicates it was produced on Cyprus. It is thought to be a temple offering, of an elite male, dedicated on a visit to the port, but could also be a representation of a Semitic deity, such as Baal or Melqart (who both have Egyptian counterparts, Baal with Amun and Melqart with Herakles).
Whoever it represents, it proves that international relations were alive and well in Egypt in the late first millennium BC, and along with the other artefacts on display in this wonderful exhibition, offers new insights into the nature and quality of both the Greek-Egyptian relationship and other cultures at this time.
The BP Exhibition Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds The British Museum, London
Showing until: 27 November 2016
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