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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/1/20

Lost Cities of Ancient Egypt Discovered in Mediterranean

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Archeologist eye to eye to with a sphinx underwater. The treatment of the face is characteristic of royal effigies blending the Pharaonic traditions with the Hellenistic portrait style. This Sphinx could be a portrait of the father of Cleopatra VII, the '
Archeologist eye to eye to with a sphinx underwater. The treatment of the face is characteristic of royal effigies blending the Pharaonic traditions with the Hellenistic portrait style. This Sphinx could be a portrait of the father of Cleopatra VII, the '
(Image by Jérôme Delafosse © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
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In one of the most astonishing underwater discoveries of all time, lost cities of Ancient Egypt are being uncovered in about 30 feet of water in the Mediterranean. About 300 of these treasures are currently on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Thonis, the main port of entry into the Mediterranean from the eighth century BCE until the fourth century BCE, had seemingly disappeared without a trace. It was only known through references in historical accounts until Franck Goddio and his European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) discovered the submerged city as they were exploring the nearby area for remains of Alexandria.

Heracleion, named by the Greeks because they believed their hero, Heracles had visited the city, had also disappeared without a trace. A stele discovered by Goddio and his institute revealed that the two cities were actually one city with two names, a city in which Egyptian and Greek arts and culture were woven together.

An archaeologist checks the stele of Thonis-Heracleion raised under water on site in the city of Heracleion.
An archaeologist checks the stele of Thonis-Heracleion raised under water on site in the city of Heracleion.
(Image by Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
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Further exploration of Thonis-Heracleion over the last 20 years has uncovered 75 ships and more than 700 anchors, indicating that the city was an important port. Temples, statues, coins, pottery, jewelry and other artifacts have also emerged from the shifting sands.

Thonis-Heracleion was the site of the important Amun-Gereb temple, which pharoahs were required to visit before ascending to the throne. The city also hosted the most important annual Egyptian event, the days-long Mysteries of Osiris celebration, which ended with a boat journey to the nearby city of Canopus, a center for miraculous healings for pilgrims. Canopus, situated about 2 miles from Thonis-Heracleion and 20 miles north-east of Alexandria, has also been rediscovered.

These cities were buried for over 1000 years. Built on the shifting sands at the edge of the Nile delta, a variety of natural disasters, including rising water levels and earthquakes, contributed to the disappearance of these mighty centers of trade.

Sphinx, ca. 100 BCE - 100 CE, carved in a Greek style. On exhibit at VMFA
Sphinx, ca. 100 BCE - 100 CE, carved in a Greek style. On exhibit at VMFA
(Image by Meryl Ann Butler)
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Goddio's team has been excavating for two decades, and they estimate that only 10% of the treasures have been unearthed.

Horus Falcon Votive ca. 664-332 BCE. Bronze. On exhibit at VMFA
Horus Falcon Votive ca. 664-332 BCE. Bronze. On exhibit at VMFA
(Image by Meryl Ann Butler)
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Nearly 300 of these objects are on exhibit in Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. The exhibition opened on July 4, and continues through Jan. 18, 2021. VMFA is the only East Coast venue and is the last stop for the exhibition before the objects return to Egypt.

Exhibition: artist's conception of Thonis-Heracleion, artifacts (det.) On exhibit at VMFA
Exhibition: artist's conception of Thonis-Heracleion, artifacts (det.) On exhibit at VMFA
(Image by David Stover c. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
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The works of art on display include statues, jewelry, coins, utilitarian and ritual objects, coffins and steles.

In this statue, Osiris awakens after death, lifts his head, and smiles. His beard is a symbol of his divine kingship. The crown features ostrich feathers, a sun disc and twisted rams horns, symbolic of rebirth. This statue is one cubit long (18"), exactly the size of the figures used in some of the ancient rituals.

The Awakening of Osiris ca. 664-525 BCE Gneiss, gold, electrum, bronze
The Awakening of Osiris ca. 664-525 BCE Gneiss, gold, electrum, bronze
(Image by Meryl Ann Butler)
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This stele records a decree issued by the pharaoh granting increased subsidies to the temple of Neith, the goddess of creation and war, and mother of the sun god, Ra. These subsidies would come from import duties collected in the port city.

Stele discovered in the sunken temple of Amun-Gereb, the most important temple in Thonis-Heracleion. On exhibit at VMFA
Stele discovered in the sunken temple of Amun-Gereb, the most important temple in Thonis-Heracleion. On exhibit at VMFA
(Image by Meryl Ann Butler)
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The images on the stele depict two scenes of the pharaoh presenting offerings to the seated goddess Neith, who holds ankhs, symbol of life. On the left the pharaoh wears the crown with ostrich feathers and horns and on the right he wears the red crown of lower Egypt. Not everyone could read hieroglyphics but they would have understood that the images indicated more taxation.

Detail of Stele discovered in the sunken temple of Amun-Gereb, the most important temple in Thonis-Heracleion. On exhibit at VMFA
Detail of Stele discovered in the sunken temple of Amun-Gereb, the most important temple in Thonis-Heracleion. On exhibit at VMFA
(Image by Meryl Ann Butler)
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These statues of Osiris and Isis are two of the most beautiful and well preserved artifacts in the exhibition.

Statues of Osiris and Isis, 570-526 BCE. On exhibit at VMFA
Statues of Osiris and Isis, 570-526 BCE. On exhibit at VMFA
(Image by Meryl Ann Butler)
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At 17 feet high, the colossal statue of the fertility god Hapy is the largest statue of an Egyptian god discovered in any excavation.

Statue of the Fertility God Hapy, 4th or 3rd century. On exhibit at VMFA BC.
Statue of the Fertility God Hapy, 4th or 3rd century. On exhibit at VMFA BC.
(Image by Museum photo by Meryl Ann Butler, underwater photo Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
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The exhibition tells a "riveting human saga of grandeur, complexity, wealth, and power, reminding us of the potentially devastating effects of natural disasters and the vulnerability of even the mightiest of human civilizations."

Excavation projects directed by Franck Goddio have a strictly non-commercial purpose and his work is always carried out in cooperation with the national authorities in whose territorial waters the exploration is taking place. His projects have been supported by the Hilti foundation since 1996.

At the time of this writing, the VMFA has reopened. Hours, 365 days/year, are 10 am-5 pm with extended hours until 9 pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. (Note: classes and workshops have been cancelled for the summer of 2020.) General admission is always free; there is a fee for admission to special exhibitions such as Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities, tickets are timed.

EXHIBITION SCHEDULE:

The exhibition at VMFA is its final venue before returning to Egypt. How to get there.

  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; July 4, 2020 - Jan 18, 2021, Richmond, VA
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum; Oct. 2019 - Apr.2020
  • Minneapolis Institute of Art; Nov 2018 - April 2019, Minneapolis, MN
  • St Louis Arts Museum; March - Sept 2018, Saint Louis, MO
  • Museum Rietberg; Feb - July 2017, Zurich
  • British Museum; May - Nov 2016, London (in a slightly different version under the title "Sunken cities. Egypt's lost worlds")
  • institut du monde arabe, Sept 2015 - March 2016, Paris
    VMFA, 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard; Richmond, VA 23220-4007
    VMFA, 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard; Richmond, VA 23220-4007
    (Image by David Stover c.Virginia Museum of Fine Arts')
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Meryl Ann Butler is an artist, author, educator and OpedNews Managing Editor who has been actively engaged in utilizing the arts as stepping-stones toward joy-filled wellbeing since she was a hippie. She began writing for OpEdNews in Feb, 2004. She became a Senior Editor in August 2012 and Managing Editor in January, (more...)
 

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