Excavation sites in Aboukir Bay, Egypt

Geography and History

The delta of the Nile, the mouth of the sacred river of Egypt, has changed its course over time.

The archaeological sites were submerged as a result of several different forces:

  • The slow sinking—or subsidence—of the eastern Mediterranean;
  • The rise of the sea level since antiquity;
  • Ground collapse or landslides due to seismic activity;
  • Local liquefaction of underlying clay and limestone deposits, especially where heavy buildings had been constructed. This can be triggered by a local excess of weight caused by either a catastrophic Nile flood or a tidal wave.

Any or all these factors has provoked a change of level of some 8 metres compared to the level in ancient times. The cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus are today submerged, situated off the current shore of Aboukir Bay.

The location of the archaeological sites of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus in Aboukir Bay

The Late Period and trade in the Mediterranean

One thousand five hundred years of Egyptian history: a long period marked by the end of the pharaohs and numerous foreign influences: Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab. An amazing cultural mixture develops in Egypt, to which the artefacts in this exhibition bear witness.

The oldest items in the exhibition, dating from the VIIth century BC, take us back to the Egyptian Late Period. The era of the pharaohs has already lasted over two thousand years, but the era of territorial expansion under such great kings as Thutmose III (1490-1436 BC) or Ramses II (1290-1224 BC) is long past. In the instability that characterises the Late Period, the XXVIth dynasty (664-525 BC), known as the Saïte dynasty stands out as an exception.

Once Egypt was liberated from the Assyrian occupation with the particular help of Greek mercenaries, peace and economic prosperity return to the country. Trade with the Hellenic world, which had begun as early as the IInd millennium BC, intensified. The town of Naukratis in the Nile Delta near Saïs, the capital of the Saïte pharaohs, becomes the foremost trading post of the Greeks in Egypt. To reach it, Greek merchants must pay taxes and dues on their cargoes at Thonis-Heracleion, the customs post of Egypt situated at the mouth of the westernmost branch of the Nile. Considered the gateway of the country, this is the mandatory passage for all foreign shipping from the Mediterranean world to enter Egypt. In 525 BC, the Persians take control of the country for the next one hundred and twenty years, until a local dynasty comes into power in 404 BC. The victorious general Nectanebo I (380-362 BC) founds the 30th and last indigenous dynasty. Nectanebo II (360-343 BC), the last Egyptian pharaoh in history, capitulates to a renewed, albeit short-lived Persian occupation.

Marble head of the god Serapis
Greek Egypt and the influence of Alexandria

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who conquered Egypt, put an end to the reign of the Persian Darius III in 332 BC. In the following year, he founded the city of Alexandria, 35 kilometres from Heracleion. Never before had a city outside of Greece attained such proportions. At his death in 323 BC, his general and friend Ptolemy inherited Egypt.

Ptolemy takes the title of king in 305 BC under the name of Ptolemy I Soter and chooses Alexandria as his capital. The new sovereign relegates Naukratis and Thonis-Heracleion to the background by diverting port and trade activities to Alexandria. He develops the city into a place of science, creating the Museum (which originally signified a “temple dedicated to the muses”), the great library, and a university. The construction of the famous lighthouse of Alexandria at the tip of the island of Pharos—considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—is also begun under his rule. Hellenistic Egypt reaches its apogee under his reign (305-282 BC) and the reign of his son Ptolemy II (282-246 BC). In a few short decades, Alexandria grows to a city of over 100 000 inhabitants, becoming the greatest metropolis of the known world. Canopus, situated near Thonis-Heracleion, was linked to the new capital city by a canal. As a great religious centre reputed for its processions of Osiris and its miraculous healings, it included one of the greatest temples in the land, dedicated to Serapis. This cult probably originated in the region in the IIIrd century BC, and subsequently spread throughout the Hellenistic world. The Ptolemy or Lagid dynasty (after Lagos, Ptolemy I’s father) ends with the reign of Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII. After alliances with Julius Caesar, with whom she has a son called Ptolemy XV or Caesarion, and later with Mark Anthony, the “queen of kings” is forced to resign to Octavian—the future Augustus—whose legions have invaded the country. She commits suicide in 30 BC and Egypt becomes a Roman province. Alexandria remains the capital and, although somewhat reduced, retains her predominant economic status.

Reconstruction of the city of Thonis-Heracleion

Disappearance under the waves

For over 1200 years, Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion have been covered by the waters of the Mediterranean. Their submersion was completed in the VIIIth century by an earthquake. This was not the only cause, however. Several upheavals, some of them associated with tidal waves, had already shaken the region. One of the most violent, in 365 AD, is said to have caused 50 000 casualities in Alexandria.

More on www.franckgoddio.org and www.ieasm.org.

Topography — Revealing the face to the sunken cities once more

A sizeable part of the work consisted of establishing detailed maps of the sunken sites, which would then enable archaeologists to precisely locate the remains underwater and to decide where to direct and organise diving and excavation there. Charts also serve to reconstruct the appearance of these ancient cities: the contours of the land, the course of the canals, the infrastructure, and the position of the monuments.

In order to accomplish this, the team made use of the most sophisticated electronic equipment available, such as nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometers developed in 1990 by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). These devices of extreme sensitivity can detect any kind of submerged object, even buried under layers of sediment.

The survey area was defined after extended archival study of ancient texts. Aboukir Bay, which conceals the two towns of Canopus and Thonis Heracleion, spreads over some 10 by 11 km, a total surface of more than 110 km² ! Alongside the excavation campaigns, research, survey and geological studies continue every year to fine-tune the charts of these submerged areas.

More on www.franckgoddio.org and www.ieasm.org.

The nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometer used during underwater archaeological surveys.

The Team

Franck Goddio

President and founder of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), Franck Goddio is an archaeologist of almost 30 years standing. He instigated the underwater research and excavation in Aboukir Bay, where the two long forgotten towns of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were re-discovered. In Alexandria he explored, charted and excavated the famous Portus Magnus, the great eastern port, and co-founded the Centre of Maritime Archaeology at Oxford University (OCMA). The exhibition “Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” which he commissioned, is the direct result of his and his team’s work.

More on www.franckgoddio.org and www.ieasm.org.

The Team

The underwater discoveries behind the exhibition “Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” are the product of the collaboration between the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology [ IEASM ], under Franck Goddio’s leadership, a dedicated international group including such diverse specialists as archaeologists, Egyptologists, divers, numismatists, ceramic specialists, academics, archaeological reconstructors and conservators, electronic engineers, technicians, artists, cameramen, and photographers… In total, some thirty—and sometimes up to fifty—individuals from France, Egypt, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Spain, Russia and the Philippines work side-by-side with the excavation director. Generally, the team gathers twice a year, in spring and autumn, on board the support vessel “Princess Duda” to search and excavate the sites of Alexandria as well as those of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion in the Aboukir Bay.

The Oxford Centre of Maritime Archaeology (OCMA) participates in the missions with post-graduate students and offers them the possibility, thanks to PhD scholarship grants, to focus their research on archaeological material discovered by the work of the IEASM. OCMA also supervises the academic publication of all studies resulting from the excavations.

The archaeological venture is controlled by the IEASM (Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine), a non-profit association under French law of 1901, created by Franck Goddio in 1987, and placed under the supreme authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, which supervises all archaeological work in the country. The archaeological projects of Franck Goddio have been supported by the Hilti Foundation since 1996.

Lending Museums

Almost ten years after “Egypt’s Sunken Treasures”, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has again agreed to lend 293 objects from Egypt, including 250 found recently by the IEASM, to create the new exhibition “Osiris, the Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries”.

The majority of these artefacts comes from the recent excavations of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, and is augmented by some forty items from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and Alexandria’s Museum of Antiquities of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Greco-Roman Museum, Maritime Museum and National Museum. Most of these objects leave Egypt for the first time.

Hilti Foundation

The fascination of history: researching the past, making new discoveries, presenting findings to the public. These are the goals shared by Franck Goddio and the Hilti Foundation.

The Hilti Foundation was established in 1996 as a charitable organisation by the Martin Hilti Family Trust. Since 2007, the Hilti Foundation has been a joint organization of the Martin Hilti Family Trust and the Hilti Group.

Originally, the Foundation was founded to help finance the fascinating underwater archaeological expeditions of Franck Goddio and his team. In the following years, the Foundation extended its activities from science to further projects in the areas education and society.

The Hilti Foundation is committed to a select range of innovative and sustainable projects. The focus of the Hilti Foundation’s scientific commitment has been the support of the underwater archaeological work of Franck Goddio and his team off the Egyptian coast. Franck Goddio works closely with respected experts and scientists and enjoys the academic support of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA) at Oxford University.

More on www.hiltifoundation.org