Sunken Cities: the man who found Atlantis

Franck Goddio (right) with a colossal statue of a pharaoh that was reassembled underwater 
Franck Goddio (right) with a colossal statue of a pharaoh that was reassembled underwater  Credit: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio - Hilti Foundation

One day in 1999, the French maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio went diving off the coast of Egypt. He was poised to make the most important discovery of his life.

That day, the visibility of the waters in Aboukir Bay, at the north-western edge of the Nile Delta, was terrible: at a depth of around 20ft, he could barely see more than six inches in front of his diving mask. Yet, after three years of research, in which Goddio had compiled a geophysical survey of the seabed in order to identify the likely locations of several ancient cities lost beneath the waves more than a millennium before, he felt sure that he was in the right place.

Supported by a team of 40, including Egyptologists, engineers and expert divers, Goddio began scouring the seabed. Before long he had spotted the broken shafts of centuries-old red granite columns, protruding from the sediment. Goddio recognised these columns as proof of a significant settlement from antiquity. But he could not immediately be certain that it was Canopus, the specific city he had been hoping to find.

So, the following year, he started excavating another nearby spot. “And then: voila!” Goddio, 69, recalls. “We found the foundation of a very big wall, three metres thick, made of limestone blocks. It was fantastic.”

The head of the god Serapis Credit: Photo: Christoph Gerigk ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Further excavation showed that the wall ran for more than 330 ft, suggesting that it had belonged to the largest temple found in the region so far. The monumental scale of the sanctuary persuaded Goddio that he had discovered the Serapeum of Canopus, a temple dedicated to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis renowned in antiquity for its power to heal sick people who slept within its precinct. In addition, the ruins tallied with the discovery by Goddio’s team in the summer of 1999, of a colossal marble head, found not far from the sanctuary’s wall. The head was broken at the base of the neck, but its size suggested that it had once topped a giant statue, up to 15ft in height. After the encrustation of seashells and silt was removed from its surface, Goddio was confronted by a vigorous male face, its still powerful features framed by luxuriant hair and a bushy beard. He was eye to eye with the face of Serapis.

Next month, this portrait, carved in the second century BC, will go on display as part of Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, the British Museum’s first major exhibition devoted to underwater archaeology. Comprising 300 objects, the show will celebrate the pioneering work of Goddio, who is president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, which he founded in 1987. Since the late Eighties, Goddio has worked around the world: he has excavated 13 shipwrecks in the Philippines alone. For the past two decades, though, he has focused on an underwater area, equivalent in size to Paris, which lies 20 miles north-east of Alexandria.

It was here that he rediscovered not only Canopus but also another lost city called Thonis-Heracleion, four miles off the coast. Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were both built on unstable wetlands and, probably during the eighth century AD, sank into the sea. 

Before their destruction, though, the cities of the Canopic coast were among the most dynamic settlements on the Mediterranean.

An artist's impression of the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion

“Thonis-Heracleion was huge,” Goddio explains. “It was the port of entry to Egypt, so all trade had to go through the city. Furthermore, it possessed a temple where every pharaoh had to go in order to receive the title of their power, as universal sovereign, from the supreme god Amun. So it was very wealthy.”

The settlement was so big that Goddio estimates he has only excavated five per cent of it so far. “You know Pompeii?” he says. “Pompeii is a very small city. They started archaeological excavation there in the 18th century – and it is still not excavated fully. Thonis-Heracleion covers an area that is three times the size of Pompeii.”

In part, of course, the excavation is slow-going because underwater archaeology throws up so many challenges. The Canopic cities do not sit invitingly on the seabed, but are hidden beneath the sand: “If you dive,” says Goddio, “you will see nothing but the bottom of the sea.” 

When they are excavating underwater, Goddio and his team follow strict protocol. Using a water-dredge (essentially an underwater vacuum cleaner that sucks away sand), they create large, square holes around newly discovered objects, so that the swell will not rapidly re-cover them with sediment. Then they carefully clean the artefacts using spatulas.

Poor visibility means that it can take days to understand the contours of individual objects, such as the colossal red-granite statue of the god Hapy, the personification of the annual inundation of the Nile, upon which the prosperity of ancient Egypt depended. This statue, which is almost 18ft tall and weighs approximately six tons, was discovered in Thonis-Heracleion. Visitors to the British Museum will encounter it at the start of the exhibition.

A statue of the ancient Egyptian queen Arsinoe II Credit: Photo: Christoph Gerigk

Then there is the tricky business of getting such large objects up to the surface. “Under water,” Goddio explains, “weight is not a problem. The problem comes when you want to lift an object up.” In order to raise the statue of Hapy, for instance, which was discovered broken in seven massive fragments, Goddio hired a huge barge with a crane capable of lifting 50 tons.

It was essential to have a powerful crane, because the swell could suddenly lift each block of granite out from the sea without warning. “And so one ton would suddenly weigh four or five tons in a second,” Goddio says.

Still, Goddio believes that underwater archaeology has certain inherent advantages. “Artefacts are sometimes better preserved under water,” he says. “Also, you do not have the interference of modern life. At Karnak, say, you have a temple. But close to the temple you have [modern] buildings, houses, parking spaces – things you cannot excavate. At sea, I have a whole region – 11km by 10km – without anything, just for me.”

Colossal statues aren’t the only artefacts that Goddio has found in Aboukir Bay. Among his more intriguing finds are several lead model boats, of various lengths, which he discovered in Thonis-Heracleion. These curious objects were probably associated with the secret annual rituals known as the Mysteries of Osiris. “Nothing like them has ever been discovered before,” Goddio says.

The exhibition at the British Museum will also contain other small objects, including gold drinking vessels, coins and jewellery, an unusual, elongated bronze lamp adorned with a duck’s head, and an Athenian pottery perfume bottle, decorated with the image of a panther.

An ancient pharaoh's head, found off the coast of Alexandria Credit: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio - Hilti Foundation

These, however, are not the things that Goddio finds most stimulating. “I am the exact contrary to Indiana Jones,” he says. “I am not looking for treasure. I am looking for history. Every day we find fabulous artefacts – but a fabulous artefact can be a shard of ceramic that will tell us something about an area that we did not know. Beautiful jewellery doesn’t reveal much about a site. I get excited by historical information.”

Goddio is particularly proud of having found, in Thonis-Heracleion, an inscribed slab, or stele, from 380 BC, bearing a decree issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I which, he says, helped “solve a 2,000-year-old mystery”.

For millennia, people believed that Thonis and Heracleion were different towns. But the stele revealed that, in fact, “Thonis” was the older, Egyptian name for the city that the Greeks called Heracleion (in honour of the half-god Herakles).

This is significant, because it suggests that parts of ancient Egypt – which used to be considered an isolated, inward-looking state – were more cosmopolitan than was previously thought.

During the Ptolemaic Kingdom, which lasted from 305 BC until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC, Egypt became an ever more complex society. Living on the mouth of the Nile, the inhabitants of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion came into contact with people from other parts of the Mediterranean, including Phoenicians, Cypriots, and Greeks. As a result, they began to combine Egyptian traditions with foreign customs and approaches.

One of the star exhibits of the British Museum’s show will illustrate this cultural intermingling. It is a sensual statue from Canopus, carved from black granodiorite and subsequently polished during the third century BC, depicting the Ptolemaic queen Arsinoe II, who was worshipped as a goddess after her death.

In many ways, it is typical of ancient Egyptian art: the striding pose is traditional, as is the material – a hard stone that Egyptian craftsmen, unlike their Greek counterparts, were adept at working.

At the same time, the statue bears unmistakably Greek traits – most obviously, the seemingly wet, semi-transparent drapery that clings to her body, emphasising every curve. Hybrid Greco-Egyptian artworks often feel clunky and awkward, but this masterpiece harmoniously fuses two different styles – reflecting the interconnection of the Greek and Egyptian worlds.

“In the seventh century BC, Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were [entirely] Egyptian,” explains Goddio. “But later, during the fourth century, you find not only artefacts of Greek provenance, but also Greek influence on art, on statues, on the representation of gods. There was a mixture of cultures – and a mixture of religions, as well.”

He pauses. “And why not? Thonis-Heracleion existed before Alexandria and Rome. It was once the biggest port of the Mediterranean Sea. And every year, as we excavate, the city extends farther than we thought.”

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, supported by BP, opens at the British Museum, London WC1, on May 19.

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