The Guy who Digs up Lost Cities buried at Sea


4th Jun, 2013

For the last thirteen years, he’s been busy digging up a lost underwater civilization the size of Paris off the coast of Egypt. The remarkably well-preserved ruins discovered have been sitting at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea for the past 1,200 years, at long last solving the mystery of the lost cities of Alexandria’s ancient eastern harbour, Portus Magnus. Not bad for a day job.

All photos ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photographed by Christoph Gerigk

Frenchman Franck Goddio is our man, a pioneer of modern maritime archeology who has wanderlust running in his veins. The grandson of the inventor of the modern catamaran, Eric de Bishop, and specialist of ancient navigational routes in the South Pacific, before pulling up Pharoah’s heads from the seabed, Franck was a finance guy, an advisor to governments and United Nations. But in the 1980s, he left the world of finance behind and decided to find his sea legs … (and a few other things).

He founded the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) and put together a team of divers, archaeologists, scientists and other experts. To date, his ongoing thirteen year excavation off the coast of Egypt has been Goddio’s most ambitious. In the year 2000, after nearly eight years of research before that trying to determine the location of the submerged civilizations, Goddio and his team rediscovered the ancient port cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus in Aboukir bay.

More than a thousand years ago, they had fallen prey to natural disasters and disappeared beneath the waves. Colossal statues, giant tablets inscribed in ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian, gold and bronze artifacts forgotten on the seabed were unearthed from layers of sediment by Goddio and his team.

Nothing from later than the 8th century AD has been found but experts have been astounded by how well preserved the artifacts are. Canopus was a city famous for its extravagant shrines and the opulent lifestyles of its citizens. Heracleion just 3km east of Canopus, was home to an enormous ancient temple and convent. This colossal red granite statue of red granite above, discovered on the site by Goddio’s team ironically represents Hapi, the god of the flooding of the Nile. Never before has such a large-scale representation of the god been discovered.

To raise heavy artefacts, Goddio’s team will often use airbags capable of resisting a pressure of 100 atmospheres. But the work really begins with finding the treasure, a process that can occupy underwater archeologists for decades. The study of ancients texts and archives in order to determine a probable location can take years alone. Then the cutting edge technology comes in. We’re talking specially developed nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometers, multi-beam bathymetries, sidescan sonars and other hi-tech stuff I can’t pronounce. Once they think they’ve found something, test excavations are performed and if the data gives some positive signals, the full archaeological excavation can finally begin (in full accordance with UNESCO of course).

Water dredges, underwater suction devices, are used by the divers to remove thousand year-old sediment. As per the Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage  artifacts are “usually” left on site but if they’re deemed at risk, they may be risen for their ‘safeguard, study and conservation’. At the Alexandria National Museum, a renovated 1929 Italian-style mansion in Alexandria, Egypt, Franck Goddio’s most important findings are permanently on display to the public. See here for other museums housing Franck Goddio finds.

Franck Goddio with the intact and inscribed Heracleion stele (1.90 m). It was commissioned by Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the Naukratis Stele in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The place where it was to be situated is clearly named: Thonis-Heracleion.

A gold vessel (Phiale) recovered from Thonis-Heracleion. Phiale were shallow dishes used throughout the Hellenistic world for drinking and pouring libations.

This gold object (11 x 5 cm) was found during the preliminary exploration of the southern sector of Heracleion. It is engraved with a Greek text of five and a half lines. It is an example of a plaque that act as a signature for foundation deposits in the name of the king, Ptolemy III (246–222 BC), responsible for building.

A limestone head of a statue found at Canopus. It probably originates from Cyprus (contacts between Cyprus and Egypt are well attested during the middle of the 1st millennium BC).

Animal footprints preserved at Canopus after removal of 2.5 m of sand.

Golden coins dating from Byzantine (7th century AD) and Islamic (8th Century AD) periods, found at Canopus.

Franck also dabbles in the excavation of the odd shipwreck on ancient trade routes now and then, such as this ‘junk’ as he calls it, which sank around 1490 off the coast of the Philippines.  Inside, he found  a time capsule of blue and white porcelain bowls stacked together from the cargo of the sunken ‘Lena’ at 48 metres deep.

Archaeological divers carefully excavating (left) and a heavy artifact is lifted by airbag (right).

Pictured below are Goddio’s findings from Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet lost in the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

So, how’s your week at the office looking so far?!

Visit the water world of Franck Goddio

All photos ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photographed by Christoph Gerigk




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