Discovering ancient sunken cities at the British Museum, London

The magnificent story of two ancient cities, buried under the sea for over a thousand years, is the subject of the major summer exhibition of the British Museum, London. Vanished beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile. Named after the Greek hero Heracles, Thonis-Heracleion was one of Egypt’s most important commercial centres for trade with the Mediterranean world and, with Canopus, was a major centre for the worship of the Egyptian gods. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.
Preserved and buried under the sea, the stunning objects in the exhibition range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. Sacred offerings and ritual objects reveal the cult of Osiris - the god of the underworld who held the promise of eternal life. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.
Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. They will be seen alongside fascinating objects from major Egyptian museums for the first time in the UK.
Stele of Thonis-Heracleion, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 277) ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
The intact stele (1.90 m) is inscribed with the decree of Saϊs and was discovered on the site of Thonis-Heracleion. It was commissioned by Nectanebos I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the Stele of Naukratis in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The place where it was to be situated is clearly named: Thonis-Heracleion.
‘Garden vat’. Pink granite. L. 205 cm. Ptolemaic Period, IVth-IInd century BC. Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay (SCA 459).©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
The ruins of antique Canopus were located at some 2km east of the western fringe of the Nile delta, in Aboukir Bay.
Apis Bull, Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria (GRM 351) ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
Magnificent statue of the bull god Apis presented naturalistically (H. 190 cm),dating back to Emperor Hadrian’s reign, had been discovered at the entrance to the underground galleries of the Serapeion of Alexandria.
Votive Barques, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 1606, 1617, 1607, 1591) ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
The archaeologists of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) discovered numerous votive objects, amongst them leaden votive barques, littering the channels and basins of the port around the temple of Amun-Gereb on the site of Thonis-Heracleion. These are models of the papyrus boats that accompanied the sacred procession on the waterways, some even of the same length (67.5 cm). Their lead surface is incised to imitate the braided papyrus.
Pectoral in gold, lapis lazuli and glass paste, found in Tanis in the royal tomb of the Pharaoh Sheshonk II (~ 890 BC), Egyptian Museum, Cairo JE 72171 ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
This jewel belonged to Sheshonk I (945-925 BC), as indicated by the inscription incised inscription on the left side of the gold plaque below the boat. The pendant represents the solar barque floating on the primeval waters under a star-spangled sky. The sun of lapis-lazuli sun, protected by the spread wings of Isis and Nephtys, is incised, showing the goddess of truth and cosmic order (Maat) adoring Amon-Re.
Colossal statue of god Hapy, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 281) ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk

A colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapy, which decorated the temple of Thonis-Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region. Height 5.4 metres, depth 90 centimetres, weight 6 tonnes. Early Ptolemaic period, 4th century BC.
Colossal statue of Hapy. Pink granite. H. 540 cm. IVth century BC. Thonis- Heracleion. Maritime Museum, Alexandria (SCA 281). ©Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk
An expression of great tranquility radiates from the idealized face of this corpulent man with protruding breasts. His headdress bears the bushel of papyrus emblematic for Lower Egypt, particularly associated with Hapy, the divine personification of the Inundation of the Nile.

The BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds
19 May – 27 November 2016
Supported by BP
Organised with Hilti Foundation and the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt.


Share this article