“Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds” at the Saint Louis Art Museum combines never before seen treasures with a rich archaeological research that offers a rare glimpse into life in ancient Egypt. On the forefront of modern archaeology, Franck Goddio’s work excavating the lost cities of Egypt has been extraordinary. With the goal of rediscovering the portion of Alexandria buried under the Mediterranean Sea, Goddio approached the process with a scientific mindset. He adapted and combined advanced technology to paint a portrait of long ago. Buried in time, the cities kept their secrets free of treasure hunters and other destructive forces until Goddio led a team in 1992 to first survey the bay of Alexandria. Later Goddio would discover Thonis-Heracleion in 1999 and then Canopus in 2001.
East of Alexandria in what is now the Abu Qir Bay lies the remnants of the buried cities. Formerly lost in the annals of history, Goddio searched vast stretches of the Mediterranean to find what once served as the gateway to Egypt before the rise of Alexandria. Scholars speculate that unstable foundations combined with natural catastrophic events such as floods and earthquakes to liquefy the ground. Soil liquefaction is a process where the saturated ground beneath the cities suddenly behaved like a liquid, leading them to swallow the cities above whole. Situated on the Nile Delta, the ruins have remained untouched for over a thousand years under meters of sea water, sand, and silt.
The artifacts discovered retain a remarkable amount of detail, but more important are the stories they tell. The preserved nature of the archaeological sites means that the relics reveal much more collectively than individually by their placements in relation to one another. The sites have allowed scientists to reconstruct a clearer picture of both daily life in Egypt and obscure rituals such as the Osiris Mysteries, a celebration of life and death and the cycles of the seasons.
Underwater excavation is a relatively new discipline which incorporates both scholarly study and new technologies. Previously, underwater discoveries were a matter of chance where a deep sea diver or a fisherman might happen upon a wreck or ruins. Archaeologists mainly concentrated on land discoveries where they were able to use landmarks to pinpoint dig sites. Proceeding from ancient stories, Goddio adapted nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometers and various sonar equipment to locate precisely where to dig using a systematic approach.
Goddio’s fascination with the history buried beneath the sea started in childhood. After studying mathematics and working as an economic adviser for about a decade, he decided to resume his interest in archaeology. In 1987 he created the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, an organization dedicated to discovering and excavating sunken sites with an emphasis on cross-disciplinary study and restoration of artifacts. The institute works closely with local governments and authorities and funding comes from both the public sector and private institutions.
“Sunken Cities” is supported by the Hilti Foundation and the Ministry of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt, with local sponsorship from the William T. Kemper Foundation and Edward Jones. It consists of over 250 pieces from the dig sites, supplemented by artifacts from museums in Cairo and Alexandria. It is co-curated by Goddio and Lisa Çakmak, associate curator of ancient art at SLAM. The exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum is the first in the United States and will run until September 9, 2018.
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