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Ancient Egyptian Artifacts Revealed from a Sunken City

Head of a priest, Ptolemaic Period, found at Alexandria east harbor, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Head of a priest, Ptolemaic Period, found at Alexandria east harbor, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)

Artifacts from a long-lost underwater city are going on view in Paris this September. Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt at the Institut du Monde Arabe debuts the discoveries at Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus in Aboukir Bay, both ancient Egyptian cities once only known through the written record.

Bronze statuette of a pharaoh, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Bronze statuette of a pharaoh, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk) (click to enlarge)

The around 250 objects include complementing antiquities from museums in Cairo and Alexandria. French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (European Institute of Underwater Archaeology) led the research, in close collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology and Egyptian authorities, first finding Thonis-Heracleion in 2000. The Oxford Centre’s Director Damian Robinson told the Guardian they’ve likely “excavated only 1% or 2% of the [40 square mile] site – possibly less.”

Eerie photographs released in 2013 revealed colossal stone statues and delicate bronzes beneath the waves — relics of a once-thriving port city believed lost due to a series of natural disasters around the 8th century CE, including an earthquake. Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt will concentrate on the Egyptian god Osiris, often represented as a mummy, said to have been sliced up into pieces by his brother Seth and tossed in the Nile. Reconstructed by Isis — who in some tellings was both his sister and wife — Osiris became the god of the afterlife, and his son Horus inherited Egypt.

There are artifacts lost at sea scattered throughout museums, such as many of the Greek bronzes now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. For every mythical Atlantis or R’lyeh of H. P. Lovecraft’s sleeping Cthulu, there are many more cities lost to receding shores and disasters, such as the ancient Greek city of Pavlopetri submerged by earthquakes, or even more recent purposeful flooding like the ancient Chinese city of Shicheng drowned in a 1950s dam project. Thonis-Heracleion was once a site of religious pilgrimage with its coastal temples to Osiris and other gods, and now, hundreds of years later, the bronze pharaoh statues, oil lamps, golden eye of Horus, and temple columns cement the city’s existence beyond the realm of myth.

Bronze statuette of a pharaoh, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Bronze statuette of a pharaoh, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Base of a column, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Base of a column, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Oil lamp, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Oil lamp, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (digitally manipulated image) (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Votive barque in situ, lead, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Votive barque in situ, lead, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Bronze statues found at Thonis-Héracléion, Egypt (staged image) (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Bronze statues found at Thonis-Héracléion, Egypt (staged image) (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Fragment of the Naos of the Decades, Nectanebo I (380-362 BCE), 30th dynasty, Canopus, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
Fragment of the Naos of the Decades, Nectanebo I (380-362 BCE), 30th dynasty, Canopus, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
The wedjat-eye of Horus, Ptolemaic Period, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)
The wedjat-eye of Horus, Ptolemaic Period, found at Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo by Christoph Gerigk)

Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt opens at the Institut du Monde Arabe (1, rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard, Paris, France) on September 8 and continues through January 31, 2016.

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