Divers examine 64 shipwrecks in submerged Egyptian city

January 30, 2016

Thonis-Heracleion (Bernd F. Laeschke – March 2013): 64 Egyptian shipwrecks, dating between the eighth and second centuries BC, have been examined by divers in the now submerged city of Thonis-Heracleion. The sunken port-city was the obligatory port of entry to Egypt for all ships coming from the Greek world in the first millennium BC. Most of the shipwrecks are well preserved, sitting in the mud of the sea-bed. With 700 examples of different types of ancient anchor, the researchers believe this represents the largest nautical collection from the ancient world.

“The survey has revealed an enormous submerged landscape with the remains of at least two major ancient settlements within a part of the Nile delta that was crisscrossed with natural and artificial waterways,’ said Dr Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Robinson, who is overseeing the excavation of one of the submerged shipwrecks known as Ship 43, hopes to shed new light on why the boats appear to have been deliberately sunk. “One of the key questions is why several ship graveyards were created close to the port. Ship 43 appears to be part of a large cluster of at least ten other vessels in a large ship graveyard about a mile from the mouth of the River Nile,” Robinson said. “This might not have been simple abandonment, but a means of blocking enemy ships from gaining entrance to the port-city. Seductive as this interpretation is, however, we must also consider whether these boats were sunk simply to use them for land reclamation purposes.”

The port and its harbor basins also contain a collection of customs decrees, trading weights, and evidence of coin production. “Thonis-Heracleion played an important role in the network of long-distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, since the city would have been the first stop for foreign merchants at the Egyptian border,” Elsbeth van der Wilt, working on the project from the University of Oxford, said. “Excavations in the harbor basins yielded an interesting group of lead weights, likely to have been used by both temple officials and merchants in the payment of taxes and the purchasing of goods. Amongst these are an important group of Athenian weights. They are a significant archaeological find because it is the first time that weights like these have been identified during excavations in Egypt.”

Researchers also discovered over 300 statuettes and amulets from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods, including Egyptian and Greek subjects. The majority depict Egyptian deities such as Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus. “The statuettes and amulets were all found underwater, and are generally in excellent condition,” said S. Heinz from the University of Oxford. “The statuettes allow us to examine their belief system and at the same time have wider economic implications. These figures were mass-produced at a scale hitherto unmatched in previous periods. Our findings suggest they were made primarily for Egyptians; however, there is evidence to show that some foreigners also bought them and dedicated them in temples abroad.”