Dr Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, shares his discoveries at the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus in the Mediterranean. The University has been involved in excavating the waters of Aboukir Bay for over ten years and the treasures are now on display in London.
This stele 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.
By Lindsey Harrad
‘With maritime archeology,' enthuses Oxford University archaeologist Dr Damian Robinson, ' you have the potential to discover a ship wreck that has been lost in a moment in time, or fantastically preserved cities that have been submerged for many hundreds of years.’
And it’s the treasures that have emerged from two sunken Egyptian cities that form a fascinating new exhibition opening at the British Museum this month – Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. On display will be the finds of archeologist Franck Goddio and his team from the Institut Européen d’Archólogie Sous-Marine, along with Oxford University archeologists and doctoral students.This colossal statue from the Early Ptolemaic period (4th century BC) is the god Hapy, a symbol of abundance and fertility, at the temple of Thonis-Heracleion
Built on unstable delta sands at the mouth of the Nile, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were largely abandoned in the 2nd century BC because rising sea levels meant parts of the cities were collapsing into the water, but it took another thousand years and a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake or tidal wave, to finally completely submerge these great cities that were once visited and documented by the Greek writer Herodotus.
‘Both cities were written about in Greek and Roman literature,’ says Dr Robinson. ‘The literature often says they are a certain distance from Alexandria, so in the early days of Egyptology people went out in search of the cities simply by measuring the distance from Alexandria along the coast, without thinking they could be submerged under the sea. So this project has brought back to life places that were lost for over a thousand years. We’ve excavated monumental pieces of stonework inscribed with the names of the cities that we’ve been able to corroborate with the ancient texts, which told us we had finally found them.’The god Hapy on dry land after over 1000 years under water
Oxford first became involved with the excavations in 2003, when the Institut was looking for an academic partner. Now Oxford archeologists, including Dr Robinson, are fully integrated into the team working on the site, while a number of Oxford doctoral students are sponsored by the Hilti Foundation, which supports the ongoing project. ‘The artefacts excavated from the site are studied in Egypt and our Dphil students have examined everything from rare lead pieces to small statuettes, enormous statues of gods and kings, intricate gold jewellery and all sorts of other objects, supervised by Oxford professors,’ says Dr Robinson. ‘The material makes amazing Dphils because these artefacts are world class.’
Although the wider area has been comprehensively surveyed, only 1-2 per cent of the 1.5 hectare site has been excavated to date. But these cities have been incredibly well preserved under the Nile delta’s fine clays, and even this small area has yielded spectacular finds that reveal more about the way of life during this period, from black stone decrees carved with details of taxes on goods from incoming and outgoing vessels, to a five-metre statue of the Nile god Hapi. ‘There’s enough out there to keep archeologists busy for several lifetimes,’ admits Dr Robinson. ‘Everything has the potential to surprise us. It’s enabling us to find out more about the later period of Egyptian history, and the work that we’re doing is opening up all sorts of new ideas about the contact between the two ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece and the way in which different religious ideas were being exchanged or how trade worked between them.’These leaden votive barques were discovered 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 surface is incised to imitate the braided papyrus
Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were also focal points for the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld, where elaborate rituals to celebrate his resurrection were celebrated. Among Dr Robinson’s personal favourites from the excavations, which will be included in the displays at the British Museum, is a collection of small religious votive barques (barges), which have been examined by doctoral students at Oxford. ‘These pieces are made out of lead and are beautifully carved, with little thrones where gods would sit,’ he says. ‘Thanks to Egyptian temple decorations and documents from this period, we know that a procession in honour of Osiris took place, starting in Thonis-Heracleion and ending in Canopus, and now we’ve found the archeological remains to support this. We’ve excavated temples in both cities where these rituals happened, and a canal that travels between the two cities. The small lead versions of the boats were deposited in the waters during the procession as part of the ritual. It’s fantastic when we find a new piece in a puzzle that we’ve been working on for so many years.’
The team has also found many well-preserved ancient wooden cargo ships on the site of the old port – 69 to date – but Dr Robinson admits that there is one particular discovery he’s keen to make. ‘There are many things I’d like to find down there, but although we know Thonis-Heracleion was a military port, we haven’t discovered a military ship yet – and I’d love to find one. They tend to be rare, mainly because they were built to be light and don’t tend to sink into the clays where they can be preserved. There’s every chance we may never find one around Thonis-Heracleion, but I live in hope.’
Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds runs from 19 May to 27 November at the British Museum. Book tickets at www.britishmuseum.org
Dr Damian Robinson will be leading an Oxford Alumni Travellers trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum this September.
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Images: Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation