A 1,200-Year-Old Egyptian City Was Discovered By Researchers That’s Different From Any Other Underwater Discovery

By: Riley Brown | Last updated: Mar 27, 2023

Everyone thought the Egyptian city named Heracleion was never to be seen again, but the treasures from the city’s once glorious past have resurfaced. 

What did Dr. Franck Goddio, a French archeologist, discover? What impact does this discovery have on what we know about Egyptian history?

Lost for Good

Heracleion is said to have been founded even before Alexandria’s founding in 331 BC. With roots dating back to the 12th century BC, ships from ancient Greece used it as a port of entry into Egypt.

Advertisement

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Franck Goddio was on a 4-year geophysical survey when he stumbled onto the ancient city in 2000 just off the bay of Aboukir. With this discovery, a treasure trove of ancient statues and other artifacts was unearthed, giving us a peek at their fascinating culture.

Magnificent Giant Statues

Some statues of the gods and goddesses from that era stood over 15 feet tall, showing how much work they put into those they worshiped. These statues were made of a combination of rare gems and gold.

Advertisement

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

There were also remnants of the magnificent temples from that time, as well as huge tablets that explained how things worked back then. In those days, tablets were mostly used to keep records of rations and trade. 

Contributing to History

The artifacts that Franck and his team discovered truly contributed to history. It was a statue of Hapi, known in Egypt as the god of the flooding of the Nile, near the remnants of a temple. This god is also known as the god of fertility and abundance.

Advertisement

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Standing around 16 feet tall, the statue they found seems to be the largest among statues ever discovered that depict the same god. They lifted the statue from the ocean so that it could be restored and studied properly. 

Gigantic Finds

The statue of the god Hapi was not the only gigantic find that Franck and his team had in this expedition. In fact, they also found a statue of a pharaoh and a queen that were also around the same size as the statue of Hapi.

Advertisement

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Also, part of their find was a huge stele from the temple where these statues were found. The stele was broken into 17 pieces, but they were able to put everything together as part of the conservation process. 

A Golden Find

The discovery also showed a lot of links between Egypt and Greece. For example, they found a golden plaque with Greek writings on it. It was found in the southern part of the sunken city and showed the name of King Ptolemy III, who reigned between 246 BC to 222 BC.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

This plaque shows that it was King Ptolemy who had this area built. And it is believed that the plaque was attached to the foundation deposits as a marker.

Advertisement

A Symbol of Power

Another powerful figure the team of divers discovered was a bronze statue of the Egyptian god Osiris. The god’s name itself means “mighty.” This god is also said to rule the underworld and is the husband and brother of Isis, another powerful god in Egypt.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

The statue’s eyes are noticeably golden, making it shine brighter than its bronze body. These golden eyes, and the detailed crown on its head, all represent how much power this god wields in Egyptian culture. 

Advertisement

Documenting Every Inch

Because Franck’s team knew what a notable discovery this was, they made sure that every inch of the area was thoroughly examined and documented. After all, the way everything was laid out maps a once glorious city that was, until its discovery, believed to be lost forever.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Even the different parts of the red granite statues they found were measured and documented underneath the waters. Seeing the size of the statues found, you can imagine the huge area they had to cover around Aboukir Bay.

Advertisement

Pieces in Excellent Condition

Some of the pieces found, like the temple stele, were broken into several different parts. This was understandable, considering its sheer size and the centuries it endured underwater.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

But there were smaller pieces that remained in excellent condition and would require less restoration, considering the growth of moss and the accumulation of other sea particles. One such piece was a bronze oil lamp found perched on some corals, which, upon closer examination, seems to date back to the 2nd century BC.

Advertisement

Historical Inscriptions 

The huge steles discovered shed light on this Egyptian city’s past with the inscriptions on their surfaces. Thankfully, the inscriptions were mostly in good condition and still clearly depicted stories about life during that era.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

One of the steles found is said to have been commissioned by Nectanebo I, a pharaoh who is said to be the founder of the last native Egyptian dynasty. The stele dates back to a period between 378 BC and 362 BC.

Advertisement

Delicate Handling

Considering the centuries that these pieces were left under the water, battling the currents, the pressure, and other elements, it’s understandable that they all need delicate handling. One wrong move and these tidbits of a lost past could crumble.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

The divers ensured they handled each piece delicately while lifting them from beneath the waters and into a craft that would transport them to land. From here, they would go through restoration and be displayed in museums.

Advertisement

Still Intact

The smaller pieces were easier to lift from the water and transport back to land. But this does not mean they needed less delicate handling. The divers still needed to be careful not to damage each piece.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Some of the stone pieces they found still had gold fragments in them, so they had to be cautious in examining and documenting underwater before they were lifted to the surface. It actually amazed them that these smaller pieces still remained intact.

Advertisement

Golden Meals

Each piece they found holds a story that could add a puzzle piece to Heracleion’s mysterious past. Some were used in the daily lives of the people from that era, shedding light on their lifestyle, especially for the households of important people like pharaohs and queens.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

A shallow gold saucer, for example, was found around the temple ruins and assumed it was used for drinking and eating. Since it’s made of gold, it was certainly used by important people.

Advertisement

The Stunning Cleopatra

Even in this modern age, Cleopatra still proves to be one of the most famous Egyptian figures known for her intense beauty that captivated both allies and enemies. So it’s not surprising that there were also pieces that depicted her.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

One of the statues found of the famed Ptolemaic queen was even dressed similarly to the goddess Isis, showing her reverence to the goddess of love, fertility, and healing. The statue is also assumed to be an image of either Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III.

Advertisement

A Four-Ton Beauty

Cleopatra’s statue was made of red granite, a stone that remains rare to this day. The statue was also found near what is assumed to be the biggest temple in Heracleion, further emphasizing Cleopatra’s power during that era.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Staying true to the weight of her power, the statue also physically weighed a whopping 4 tons. This is around the same weight as a 25-foot flatbed truck! Its solid structure gives us an idea of how much work people put into creating these images at that time.

Advertisement

A Meticulous Process

The process of examining each artifact was meticulous, with every inch of the giant statues scoured for the smallest details. But lifting these statues to the surface required just as much attention to detail to ensure the job was done the right way.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

For pieces the size of Cleopatra’s statue, for example, they had to carefully attach the harnesses to ensure it didn’t slide or fall off while it was being lifted. These harnesses are also built to carry that much weight.

Advertisement

Just Like a Goddess

Other statues also depicted a similar image of Cleopatra. Again, it is unclear whether it is one of Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III, but the Graeco-Egyptian statue looked glorious just the same.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

The statue is made of dark stone and also shows Cleopatra wearing accessories meant for goddesses. This isn’t surprising at all knowing that Cleopatra often considered herself a living goddess. She even added a dramatic flair to her entrances to force people to revere her like the Egyptian deities. 

Advertisement

The Right Tools for the Job

One of the challenges that divers in this expedition faced was preparing each statue to be examined and lifted. They had to bring tools underwater that would help them clear debris from each piece.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Part of their arsenal of tools was water dredges. These work the same way as vacuum cleaners but are used underwater. They help remove layers of sand and debris from the surface of these pieces and the seabed so that the artifacts underneath are revealed.

Advertisement

The Perfect Balance

Even the pulleys used to lift the pieces to the surface are tools built to safely move them from the sea to the surface, no matter how large. But, of course, this is also a balance between using the right tools and human skills. 

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Knowing how big this discovery was, Franck and his team used all their knowledge and experience to ensure everything was done properly. After all, raising a 5-meter head of a pharaoh statue made of red granite requires above-average skills and knowledge.

Advertisement

Every Small Piece Counts

As the expedition went on, they found more pieces of the underwater city of Heracleion. These exciting finds understandably excited several notable museums, knowing they can become instrumental in sharing more historical stories with the world.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Every little piece counts. Even the small bronze figure of a 26th-dynasty pharaoh was handled as delicately as the others, knowing that this could reveal secrets unknown until now. This figure was discovered in one of the smaller temples.

Advertisement

An Epic Underwater Discovery

This is truly one of the most epic discoveries of our lifetime, knowing that there was even a time when people doubted whether Heracleion was actually real or was a mere myth. This discovery also showed the link between Egypt and Greece.

Source: Christoph Gerigk©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

With the data gathered from these artifacts, the world will hopefully get a clearer picture of the fascinating history of Egypt. It truly is a miracle that these were found, so it’s now the team’s mission to continue preserving these pieces of history for centuries to come.

Images are courtesy of the underwater archaeological expeditions of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), directed by Franck Goddio. See here for more: https://www.franckgoddio.org/ and https://www.youtube.com/user/LenaShoal.

Advertisement