Sunken Cities brings Egypt’s underwater treasures to light

Sunday 05/06/2016
A museum assistant poses by a statue of Queen Arsinoe II at the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the British Museum in London.

London - The ancient Egyptian cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion are names from legend. Greek historian Hero­dotus wrote of a famous temple in Thonis-Heracleion built where Hercules first set foot in Egypt. The port city is also said to have hosted Helen of Troy and her lover Paris before the Trojan war. As for Can­opus, it gave its name to canonic jars and was a well-known centre of worship of the gods, infamously recreated in Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Rome.
Both cities disappeared beneath the sea under mysterious circum­stances around 750-800AD. They were rediscovered in 1999-2000 approximately 6.5km off Egypt’s coast by archaeologist Franck God­dio and his team.
Now, the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the Brit­ish Museum in London is show­casing about 250 artefacts from the excavation. The relics include massive statues, perfume bottles and gold jewellery, giving a vivid picture of what life was like in the port cities during Egypt’s Ptolema­ic period.
“These discoveries have really transformed our understanding about the cultural exchange be­tween Egypt and Greece during a very crucial period of history,” said curator Daniela Rosenow. “It is possible, through these exhibits, to tell stories about migration and politics and religious beliefs and the exchange of ideas and goods.
“This gives us the opportunity to show that Egypt was not an isolat­ed civilisation but was a very out­ward-looking and influential soci­ety. It tells a story that perhaps not many people would be aware of.”
Sunken Cities takes museum-goers on an interesting journey, depicting the mix of cultures from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece and through to Roman and Byzan­tine eras — a period of more than 1,000 years. “It is an amazing story to tell, particularly on days like to­day when we read about conflicts and crises; it is nice to see an ex­hibition that focuses on exchange and discussion between people,” Rosenow said.
The exhibition is dominated by an imposing 5.5-metre, 6-tonne granite statue of Hapy, the personi­fication of the Nile floods. It is the largest statue of Hapy to be discov­ered dating from this period.
Also on show in the exhibition is the head of the statue of Nilus, the Greek version of Hapy. “They are the same person. They both have been discovered on the same sea­bed but they are separated by five centuries,” Rosenow said.
For Rosenow, who is project curator in the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, the real star of the show is a headless statue of Queen Arsinoe II, a Ptolemaic dynasty queen in the guise of the goddess Isis.
“This is the epitome of the fu­sion of Greek and Egyptian aes­thetics. It is an absolute master­piece,” said Rosenow. “It also tells an interesting story as she was the daughter of Ptolemy I, who found­ed the Ptolemaic dynasty, a dy­nasty which adopted the Egyptian religion, customs and traditions. She was married to her brother and deified after her death where she was worshipped by Greeks and Egyptians alike.”
Rosenow said she holds out hope that Queen Arsinoe may one day be reunited with her missing head and that Goddio’s excavation will reveal many more wonders.
“It’s absolutely possible [to find the head],” she said. “The statue was discovered in a statue dump in Canopus that revealed lots of masterpieces of Greco-Egyptian art and it is perfectly possible that they will discover the head in the same statue dump.”
Alongside the statues, steles and sacred objects on display are im­ages and videos of the underwa­ter excavation; Sunken Cities is as much about the journey to redis­cover Canopus and Thonis-Hera­cleion as the antiquities that have been unearthed there.
Using side-scan sonar and nu­clear resonance-magnometry and other advanced technology, God­dio and his team mapped the sea­bed for years before sending divers down. The divers are still working and Goddio estimates that only 5% of what is under the sea at Cano­pus and Thonis-Heracleion has been discovered.
“When cultures mix, people as­sume that their essence gets weak­ened or diluted but this exhibi­tion shows that this is actually not the case. The opposite happens,” Rosenow said.
Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds Exhibition runs through November 27th at the British Mu­seum in London.