Follow Us on Twitter

Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds - British Museum

Exhibition preview

THE British Museum is to stage a major exhibition on two lost Egyptian cities and their recent rediscovery by archaeologists beneath the Mediterranean seabed.

On display from May 19 to November 27, 2016, the BP exhibition, Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds, will be the Museum’s first large-scale exhibition of underwater discoveries.

It will show how the exploration of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus – submerged at the mouth of the River Nile for over a thousand years – is transforming our understanding of the relationship between ancient Egypt and the Greek world and the great importance of these ancient cities.

Three hundred outstanding objects will be brought together for the exhibition including more than 200 spectacular finds excavated off the coast of Egypt near Alexandria between 1996 and 2012.

Important loans from Egyptian museums rarely seen before outside Egypt (and the first such loans since the Egyptian revolution) will be supplemented with objects from various sites across the Delta drawn from the British Museum’s collection; most notably from Naukratis – a sister harbour town to Thonis-Heracleion and the first Greek settlement in Egypt.

Likely founded during the 7th century BC, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were busy, cosmopolitan cities that once sat on adjacent islands at the edge of the fertile lands of the Egyptian Delta, intersected by canals.

After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332BC, centuries of Greek (Ptolemaic) rule followed. The exhibition will reveal how cross-cultural exchange and religion flourished, particularly the worship of the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris.

By the 8th century AD, the sea had reclaimed the cities and they lay hidden several metres beneath the seabed, their location and condition unclear. Although well-known from Egyptian decrees and Greek mythology and historians, past attempts to locate them were either fruitless or very partial. The exhibition will show how a pioneering European team led by Franck Goddio in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities made use of the most up-to-date technologies to find them.

Thanks to the underwater setting, a vast number of objects of great archaeological significance have been astonishingly well preserved. Pristine monumental statues, fine metalware and gold jewellery will reveal how Greece and Egypt interacted in the late first millennium BC. These artefacts offer a new insight into the quality and unique character of the art of this period and show how the Greek kings and queens who ruled Egypt for 300 years adopted and adapted Egyptian beliefs and rituals to legitimise their reign.

The exhibition will feature a number of extraordinary, monumental sculptures. A 5.4m granite statue of Hapy, a divine personification of the Nile’s flood, will greet visitors as they enter the space. Masterpieces from Egyptian museums such as the Apis bull from the Serapeum in Alexandria will be shown alongside magnificent recent finds from the sea.

One such piece is the stunning sculpture from Canopus representing Arsinoe II (the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty). The Greco-Macedonian queen became a goddess beloved to both Egyptians and Greeks after her death and is depicted here as the perfect embodiment of Aphrodite, a goddess of beauty ‘who grants fortunate sailing’.

The exhibition will also cover the arrival of Greeks in Egypt, when they were hosts and not rulers; privileged but controlled by the pharaohs. A complete stela from Thonis-Heracleion advertises a 380 BC royal decree of the Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo I. It states that 10% of the taxes collected on all goods imported from the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ into Thonis-Heracleion and on all trade operations at Naukratis were to be donated to an Egyptian temple.

A wide range of objects, from modest to grand and costly, bears witness to the piety of both inhabitants and visitors at these major religious centres. Lead models of barges uncovered in the sacred waterway linking Thonis-Heracleion to Canopus are unique and moving finds.

They are associated with the Mysteries of Osiris, the most popular festival celebrated annually across Egypt during the month of Khoiak (mid-October to mid-November). Ranging in size from 6 to 67cm, these reproduce in metal a flotilla of 34 papyrus barges that would have been displayed on a waterway to celebrate the first sacred navigation of the festival.

According to religious texts, each barge was to measure 67.5 cm and to bear the figure of an Egyptian god, and would have been illuminated by 365 lamps. The lead barges are lasting testimonies possibly left by people who, long ago, celebrated this festival in the Canopic region.

Only a tiny proportion of these sites have revealed their secrets. The on-going under water archaeological mission continues to bring to light new masterpieces and further research every year as the most recent finds from 2012 will show.

Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman of the British Museum, said:

“It’s hugely exciting to be announcing the British Museum’s first large-scale exhibition of underwater discoveries and to be welcoming these important loans to London. We are grateful to BP for their ongoing support without which ambitious exhibitions such as these would simply not be possible. We’re also delighted to be working with Franck Goddio, his expert team at IEASM, the Hilti Foundation and of course our Egyptian colleagues to bring the extraordinary story of these lost cities to life.”

The beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, edited by Franck Goddio and Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, will be published on May 16, 2016 by Thames & Hudson in partnership with the British Museum. Hardback £40, paperback £25.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a full public programme.

Image (top): Colossal statue of god Hapy, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 281). ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation – Photo: Christoph Gerigk.

A colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapy, which decorated the temple of Thonis-Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region. Height 5.4 metres, depth 90 centimetres, weight 6 tonnes. Early Ptolemaic period, 4th century BC.

Image (bottom): Pectoral in gold, lapis lazuli and glass paste, found in Tanis in the royal tomb of the Pharaoh Sheshonk II (~ 890 BC), Egyptian Museum, Cairo JE 72171. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation – Photo: Christoph Gerigk.

This jewel belonged to Sheshonk I (945-925 BC), as indicated by the incised inscription on the left side of the gold plaque below the boat. The pendant represents the solar barque floating on the primeval waters under a star-spangled sky. The lapis-lazuli sun, protected by the spread wings of Isis and Nephtys, is incised, showing the goddess of truth and cosmic order (Maat) adoring Amon-Re.

Tickets: £16.50, children under 16 free. Group rates available. Booking fees apply online at www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/sunken_cities and by phone on +44 (0)20 7323 8181.

Times: Saturday to Thursday, 10am to 5.30pm; Friday, 10am to 8.30pm. Last entry 80 minutes before closing time.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG