The newest exhibit at opening at the British Museum is Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. The exhibition focuses on two Egyptian cities, which were once melting pots of Greek and Egyptian culture, but dramatically sunk into the sea 1,300 years ago when tremors liquefied the earth they stood on.
The exhibit showcases some of the incredible artefacts that archaeologists have recovered, but it also puts the spotlight (or torch) on underwater archaeology and the underwater archaeologists who are dedicated enough to dig below the waves. Contrary to what the Guardian’s Jonathon Jones rather rudely dismisses as ‘too much Indiana Jones nonsense’, the underwater images that accompany the artefacts are an unusual and welcome celebration of the people who pulled them from the depths so that we may learn about them. Solidarity with our fellow archaeologists aside, these are the must-sees…
Archaeologists had originally been looking for three cities that were known to have existed in ancient times: Canopis, Thonis and Heracleion This stele revealed that Thonis and Heracleion were the Egyptian and Greek name for the same site.
On entering the exhibition, you are faced with this massive statue of Hapy, the god of the flood. The annual flooding of the Nile was a sacred event, bringing fertility to the area. In the case of the ‘Sunken Cities’ the flood wasn’t such a positive event for Egyptians. It is great for archaeologists though.
The Greeks introduced coinage to Egypt, the first coins minted in the country were probably made to pay Greek soldiers stationed there. When Egypt became part of the Greek Empire coins were minted regularly.
Ptolemy II married his sister Arsinoe II and had his sister-wife deified upon her death. It was decreed that her likeness was to be erected and worshipped in every temple. This particularly lovely example uses Egyptian materials and posture but the rendering of flesh and garment are Greek
This awe inspiring stele is one of the largest ever found, and it is still just a fragment. It is written in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in Greek. The inscription honours the Pharoah Ptolemy VIII and his links to the local Gods.
While it may not seem like much compared to other more beautiful or more intricate artefacts of Ancient Egypt, this pail is part of the reason that underwater archaeology is most important. Because these cities were lost to the sea rather than abandoned, conquered or evolved in the usual way, archaeologists discover things that they don’t find in other contexts. This pail is part of sacred rituals that we have little evidence of. Had the city not been lost in this particular way, bronze artefacts like this one and the many other ritual objects in the exhibition would likely be melted down and re-used rather than discarded and we would never have known of them.
“What we know now is just a fraction, we are still at the very beginning of our search”
Judging by what we’ve seen exhibited, we’ll definitely be following that search.
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe