Underwater archaeologists investigating the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion, 7km off the coast of Egypt, have uncovered a rare Ptolemaic galley, as well as artefacts from a Greek burial mound in the city.
The sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion in the Bay of Aboukir was rediscovered in 2000 by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) led by Franck Goddio, who also carried out this latest season of fieldwork in close cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Egypt and with the support of the Hilti Foundation. The city once controlled access to Egypt via a branch of the Nile and was a prosperous port, but collapsed into the sea – along with a surrounding area of the Nile delta – after a series of earthquakes, tidal waves, and landslides caused by liquefaction of the soil.
This latest find brings the total number of shipwrecks identified at Thonis-Heracleion to 77. Most are cargo ships, but some were used for rituals. The newly discovered Ptolemaic galley was found under 5m of dense Nile clay and building remains using a prototype sub-bottom profiler (a piece of sonar equipment). It sank in the 2nd century BC as the city’s huge temple of Amun was destroyed during a landslide, which sent the large blocks tumbling. The 25m-long galley, moored along the southern edge of the temple, was struck by these blocks, which have aided its preservation as they have held it in place at the bottom of the ancient, filled-in canal.
The only other example of a galley of this period known to date, Goddio pointed out, is the 235 BC Marsala ship, which was discovered in 1971. Goddio said, ‘Our preliminary study shows that the hull of this galley was built in the classical tradition and relied on long mortise-and-tenon joints and well-developed internal structure. However, it also contains features of ancient Egyptian construction and allows us to speak of a mixed type of construction. It was a rowing ship that was also furnished with a large sail, as shown by a mast step of considerable dimensions. This long boat was flat-bottomed and had a flat keel, which was quite advantageous for navigation on the Nile and in the delta. Some typical ancient Egyptian shipbuilding features, together with the evidence for a reuse of wood in the ship, indicate that it was built in Egypt.’
Other notable finds from the 2021 season come from a tumulus, a burial mound used by Greeks in the city, who settled during the late Pharaonic period and established their own sanctuaries near the bigger temple of Amun. Currently, there is no evidence that Egyptians were also interred here, but a range of artefacts were found at the site and bear witness to the Greek traders and mercenaries who lived in the city. These include imported Attic pottery with black-figure and red-figure paintings, dating from the late 5th / early 4th century BC, and, as Goddio told the Guardian, wicker baskets containing doum fruit and grape-seeds. IEASM archaeologists also recovered a gold face of Bes, the Egyptian god revered as a divine protector, especially of pregnant women and children, from the north-eastern edge of this burial area.
Images: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation.