The British Museum has a knack for displaying forgotten treasures, but its current, atmospheric exhibition, devoted to the underwater cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, goes one step further. The six-month show takes visitors on a semi-immersive journey to the shadowy bottom of the sea, shedding light both literally and metaphorically on submerged objects that speak of a compelling intermingling of two great civilisations.
In the depths of the Mediterranean waters, between the ancient Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Rosetta, lie hundreds, probably thousands of precious objects of all shapes and sizes that played a part in routine daily life and sacrificial ceremonies in these lost cities. Two hundred objects selected for the exhibition, Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Cities at the British Museum, and seemingly picked out by the light of a waterproof torch carried by a scuba diver, pique the imagination in a number of ways.
The twin cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, submerged at the mouth of the River Nile for over a millennium and lost between legend and reality, once sat on fertile, shifting land of the western-most branch of the Nile at the edge of the Egyptian Delta. Prior to Alexandria's being founded in 331 BC, Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city) was the mandatory port of entry to Egypt for ships from the Greek world.
Compounding this commercial advantage, Canopus was the site of the temple of Amun, the focus of rituals linked to dynastic continuity. The cities together were great trading, cultural and religious centres and it was absolutely imperative for a Greek ruler of Egypt to be endorsed by the Egyptian priesthood--and to stamp his mark on sacred Egyptian cults by fusing Greek and Egyptian spiritual customs. This appears to have happened from the start with great ease.
Discovery of the submerged cities in 1996 by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), directed by Franck Goddio, has led to years of work by a team of dedicated underwater archaeologists. Despite the huge effort that has been put into unearthing remains, Franck Goddio says that 98% of the site remains unexcavated. "The policy now is to learn as much as we can by touching as little as we can and leaving it for future technology," he explains.
According to Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist taking part in the excavation the...