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Oil lamp discovered in the submerged ruins of Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Egypt (Cristoph Gerigk)

Precious Treasures from Ancient Heracleion to be Revealed

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Artifacts from the Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion, once thought to be little more than a legend, will be displayed at an exhibition in Paris in September. The treasures include a fine sculpture of a pharaoh and a depiction of the god Osiris with golden eyes. These are just two of the artifacts discovered underwater in the submerged ruins of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, both of which disappeared in the 8th century after being struck by tidal waves caused by an earthquake. The main cause of this disaster was is thought to be liquefaction of the silt upon which the cities were built, causing them to sink by around 12 feet .

The cities are located beneath the surface in Aboukir Bay near Alexandria and have recently been subjected to excavations by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, who is the Founding head of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology in Paris. The remains of the cities cover 40 square miles (110 square kilometers) of seabed and were initially discovered by Mr. Goddio in 2000. At the time, this was considered as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern times, resulting in the identification of colossal statues and the discovery of ancient coins and jewelry, artifacts indicating a considerable level of opulence at the height of this civilizations history.

Ptolemaic coins found at the submerged site of Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Egypt (Wikimedia Commons)

Ptolemaic coins found at the submerged site of Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Egypt ( Wikimedia Commons )

Thonis-Heracleion, a conjunction of the city’s Egyptian and Greek names, was once incredibly prosperous. The city was founded in the 8th century BC and consisted of a network of canals and a port that served as an important gateway to Ancient Egypt. It also became the most important city in the Mediterranean in terms of international trading. Mr. Goddio’s team discovered more than 700 anchors and 60 wrecks dating from the sixth to the second century BC.

“There will be many important artifacts which have never been seen before, even in Egypt, as they have been discovered recently during our underwater missions” Goddio said, speaking to The Guardian .

Statue being uncovered during the underwater mission, Alexandria, Egypt (IMGUR)

Statue being uncovered during the underwater mission, Alexandria, Egypt ( IMGUR)

Dr Daimian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford, added that within the submerged area there are probably two, or possibly three ancient cities, of which perhaps only 2% at most has been investigated so far. The main effort has been focused on surveying the site to assess the topography, accompanied by a few exploratory excavations for clarification of particular research questions.  

Prior to its discovery, the city’s memory was preserved only through ancient texts, such as those of the Greek historian Herodotus who mentioned that the city once had a great temple and had been visited by Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris. The city of Canopus nearby also appears in ancient writing, notably that of second century BC poet Nicander who wrote that Menelaus’s helmsman, Canopus, was bitten by a viper at this location. Diodorus and Strabo also mentioned the cities in their writing.

The Love of Helen and Paris, Jacques-Louis David (1788) (Wikimedia Commons)

The Love of Helen and Paris, Jacques-Louis David (1788) ( Wikimedia Commons )

The cities were also famous for their sanctuaries, devoted to Osiris and other Egyptian deities and known for their miraculous healing powers. The Temple of Khonsou , son of the god Amun, was also located there. The discovery of artifacts at these locations correlate with texts and inscriptions, including the Decree of Canopus, preserved on a stela from 238 BC that describes donations, sacrifices and a procession of ships.

Goddio explained that unique artifacts “not known before and not represented in any museum,” such as ritual ceremonial barges have also been discovered at the site along with a black granite carving of a priest’s head and a ceramic depicting Bes, a god who protected people against evil spirits.

Granite head of a priest discovered in the submerged ruins of Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Egypt (Cristoph Gerigk)

Granite head of a priest discovered in the submerged ruins of Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Egypt ( Cristoph Gerigk )

The artifacts will be presented to the public at an exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris from September 8 - January 31, 2016 entitled Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt. It will incorporate more than 290 artifacts with film footage depicting the underwater atmosphere of the site. Other artifacts will be loaned to the exhibition from museums in Cairo and Alexandria.

By Robin Whitlock

Featured Image: Oil lamp discovered in the submerged ruins of Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Egypt ( Cristoph Gerigk )

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