Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
In previous posts, I have looked at archaeological sites preserved in water. Over 450 logboats or dug-out canoes have been recorded in Ireland mainly in lakes and rivers. For example, a remarkable assortment of 14 logboats has recently been discovered in Lough Corrib, Co. Galway, dating from the early Bronze Age (c. 2,500 BC) to the eleventh century AD.
Estimates of the number of crannogs found on Lough Gara, Co. Sligo, range from 145 to 369 although a maximum of 190 is more realistic. The archaeological evidence suggests that crannogs, or at least platforms, may have been built in this lake in the Late Mesolithic around 4,000 BC.
Across the Irish Sea, the Must Farm settlement in Cambridgeshire, England, is one of the most complete Late Bronze Age examples known in Britain. The settlement consists of five circular wooden houses, built on a series of piles sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built around 1300 – 1000 BC.
The discoveries of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus have challenged our perceptions of ancient Egypt. These two ancient cities thrived on the exchange and flow of people, goods and ideas, from around 300 years before Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt (332-331 BC). The cities sank beneath the sea over twelve hundred years ago. A large multinational team is studying the finds and the cities they came from and is slowly piecing together what life was like on the Canopic coast of ancient Egypt.
Thonis and Heracleion are mentioned as apparently separate cities in ancient Egyptian and Greek sources including the trilingual Decree of Canopus, issued in Egypt in 238 BC. Excavations on the site, however, provided evidence to prove that Thonis and Heracleion, were the same town. The underwater excavations uncovered the remains of a large sanctuary located on the central island, built from limestone blocks. Archaeologists recovered a pink granite naos (shrine) from which they established that the principal god of the temple was Amun-Gereb and that the name of the town was Heracleion.
Stele commissioned by Nectanebo 1 - Thonis-Heracleion
Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
A second discovery around the temple was an intact stele (a stone or wooden slab) bearing a decree by pharaoh Nectanebo 1 (r. 380-362 BC.) The stele indicates the Egyptian name of the town where it was erected: ‘The-hone-of-Sais’, that is, Thonis. The discovery of these two inscribed objects – the shrine of Amun-Gereb and the stele of Thonis-Heracleion – solved a mystery of historical geography. The archaeological site that archaeologists had located was both the Heracleion of the Greeks and the Thonis of the Egyptians.
Thonis-Heracleion was active from at least the seventh century BC, rising in primacy as the major trading centre in the fifth to fourth centuries BC. The excavations have revealed a sizeable collection of pottery and coins, the study of which reveals that supply of both to the city abruptly stops at the same time at the end of the second century BC. Shortly afterwards the main temples on the central island were destroyed in a catastrophic natural event. After the destruction of its major temples, the city appears to have been largely abandoned. Core samples taken from the sediments under the bay identified the characteristic signs of ‘liquefaction’, whereby the ground surface literally turns from a solid into a liquid.
Significant quantities of metals including copper, tin and iron, are listed among the imported goods brought to Egypt on Greek and Phoenician ships in a fifth century BC tax register, together with wine, oil, wool and wood. Egyptian exports to Greece included vital supplies of grain, but also natural resources such as alum and natron, which were especially important in dyeing. Egypt was well known for semi-luxury goods such as papyrus, perfume and amulets.
Religion and religious spaces (sanctuaries) played an important role in the lives of Egyptians and Greeks, as well as in their relations with each other. Religion could help in retaining one’s own identity and culture or provide a means of adapting to a foreign environment.
Pink Granite Garden Tank: Thonis-Heracleion
Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
Other significant artefacts were found around the temple. Close to the shrine of Amun-Gereb, a large basin of red granite was discovered, known as the ‘garden tank’ intended for the secret rituals known as the Mysteries of Osiris. Three immense red granite statues over five metres high, representing a king, a queen and Hapy, god of fertility, abundance and the flooding of the Nile, provide clear evidence of the temple’s scale and importance.
Excavation in the Grand Canal along the north side of the temple has revealed a substantial collection of artefacts that appear to have been ritually deposited in the waters. Many of these artefacts such as bronze ceremonial ladles, known as simpula, and ritual lead models of barques (boats), were associated with the Mysteries of Osiris, and help to illustrate the sacred character of this great waterway.

Colossal Statue of Pharoah
Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
Specially made lamps depicting deities spread across the Roman empire as far as Britain. A Roman lamp handle with Isis nursing Harpokrates (Horus-the-child) - c. AD 100-200), was found in Faversham, Kent, the Roman town of Durolevum. Faversham had a Romano-British temple and a Roman theatre. A temple of Isis was in use in London during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
From at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (c.2055-1650 BC), the Mysteries of Osiris were the most important ritual celebrations to take place in Egypt each year. An effigy of the god, probably made during the Mysteries, emerged from the temple for a public procession in its golden barque (sailing boat), called Neshemet.
The excavations carried out in the towns of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, brought to light ritual deposits and instruments linked to the Mysteries of the month of Khoiak. These objects reveal the sacred character of the Grand Canal, the waterway that flowed along the north side of the temple of Amun-Gereb.
An exhibition at the British Museum entitled ‘Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds’ ends on 27th November 2016.

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