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Amazing Egyptian Artifacts Recovered from Sunken Cities in the Nile Delta

Part archaeological expedition, part adventure story, the Sunken Cities exhibition opened this week at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Archaeologist eye to eye to with a sphinx underwater, Eastern Harbor, Alexandria, Egypt (1st century BCE, photo by Jérôme Delafosse © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum)

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds is a spectacularly beautiful opportunity to indulge your inner Indiana Jones. Part archaeological expedition, part adventure story, the exhibition opened this week at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) in Missouri. The ancient artifacts on display were discovered under the sea during recent excavations by Franck Goddio, president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, and his team. This is the North American debut of Sunken Cities, which has also been shown at the British Museum in London, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and the Museum Rietberg in Zurich.

Lisa Çakmak, Associate Curator of Ancient Art for the collection, studied both classical art and archaeology, and was deeply moved by the exhibition after seeing it at the British Museum. At SLAM, the exhibition includes over 200 artifacts from the cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion, both of which were long believed to be lost to time: 16-foot statues of pharaohs and goddesses like Hapy, jewelry, bronze vessels, and statuesque homages to the god Osiris, all salvaged from just ten meters below the sea. There, they were covered by a layer of silt that obscured them from sight, but protected their integrity. Though Thonis-Heracleion’s history dates as far back as 12th century BCE, lavish jewels and gold coins from the area maintain an otherworldly glow.

A four-foot statue of a priest holding an Osiris-Canopus with veiled hands, Alexandria, granodiorite, National Museum of Alexandria (1st century BCE-2nd century CE, photo by Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum)

The black stele that originally demystified the names Thonis and Heracleion is on display, still intact and scrawled with dense lettering. (There are three other steles to check out, including a greywacke, tombstone-shaped piece dedicated to Horus.) The cities were once thought to be separate, despite their similar descriptions in ancient Egyptian and Greek literature. But in 2000, after surveying the Abu Qir Bay off the coast of Egypt for nearly five years, Goddio and his team discovered Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion; the stele revealed that Thonis was the port city’s Egyptian name, and Heracleion its Greek moniker.

“Colossal statue of the god Hapy”, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt, red granite (4th century BC, photo by Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum)

Located about 20 miles northeast of Alexandria and built on adjoining islands in the Nile Delta, Thonis-Heracleion was just a short distance from Canopus, another coastal town. The city was a massive trading hub, wealthy and well-traversed, and Sunken Cities recalls its opulence: a thick ring from the Ptolemaic period, its band a twist of thick coils; beast-shaped earrings; serving dishes made of gold. It was also a center for religious pilgrimages, with sanctuaries dedicated to the healing arts and, specifically, Osiris. During a yearly festival, called the Mysteries of Osiris, a ceremonial boat was led from the temple of Amun to a shrine in Canopus.

The stele of Thonis-Heracleion raised under water on site in the bay of Aboukir, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt; National Museum, Alexandria, IEASM Excavations. (photo by Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, image courtesy St. Louis Art Museum)

Though this barge will not be on view at SLAM, Osiris is everywhere, with over 30 objects depicting him in various ephemera — an amulet, a vase, a statuette held in the goddess Isis’s arms, a basalt structure shaped like his death bed. For those of us who associate ancient Egyptian literature rather immediately with Isis and Osiris, Sunken Cities, with its treasures from a city quite dedicated to the latter’s existence, will inspire a sense of mysticism, and still more mystery. Goddio estimates that his team has found only five percent of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion. This knowledge — that there’s so much we still haven’t seen — may be as tantalizing as any of the objects on display.

The bust of the colossal statue of the god Hapy, strapped with webbing before being raised out of the water of Aboukir Bay, Egypt, by IEASM Excavations 
(photo by Christoph Gerigk
 © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum)

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum (1 Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, Missouri) until September 9.

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