Sunken cities

Sunken Cities – on now until 27th November

The first day of this exhibition was rather eventful, the British Museum having to close for several hours after Greenpeace activists climbed the columns to hang banners in protest at BP’s sponsorship. Since then, all has been peaceful and, whether you agree with the source of funding or not, the exhibition is definitely worth a look.

We’ve all heard the tale of the mystical city of Atlantis, but such cities did exist. In the eighth century two ancient cities, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, sank beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Their demise was caused by natural disaster: an earthquake and tidal wave. Back in 2000 the French marine archaeologist, Franck Goddio, discovered the two cities in Abukir Bay near Alexandria, and has been excavating the vast site ever since. The scale of the find is incredible. Even after this many years it is estimated that only 1-2% of the site has been excavated.

These cities illustrate the relationship that existed between ancient Egypt and Greece, shown in the dual named city Thonis (Egyptian name) – Heracleion (Greek name). The Egyptian deities were matched to their Greek counterparts so that all were comfortable existing side by side. The cities grew up as they sat at the mouth of the western branch of the Nile, a main artery for trade down to the cities of Naukratis (the first Greek settlement in Egypt) and Memphis, the ancient capital. Sixty nine ships have been found that would have been anchored in the Thonis-Heracleion harbour. Canopus were more of a religious centre and so there are many artefacts related to deities, in particular Osiris, god of the afterlife.

One important note on this exhibition: not all of the exhibits are from these cities. Many are, and these are all marked with a wave-like symbol. Those that don’t are used to better illustrate (and bulk out) the stories. For example, there is a section relaying the story of Osiris and Isis which uses lots of artefacts already discovered in other locations in Egypt. A short version of this myth is below. To me it didn’t matter that not everything had come from the sunken cities as the pieces were used to good effect and illustrated the importance of these deities to the people who lived in the cities at that time.

The most impressive sights include a 5.4 metre tall granite sculpture of the god Hapy that would have stood in Thonis-Heracleion (watching the video of divers beneath the sea, preparing to lift this from the silt give an idea of the scale of the project and how incredible it must be for the archaeologists), a sphinx, and colossal statues of Isis and Osiris. Apparently the gallery ceiling had to be heightened to accommodate the statue of Hapy. Overall, I think it works although there is a LOT to take in. You could easily spend a couple of hours in here and when I went (4pm on a Tuesday) it wasn’t too busy.


The British Museum is open daily. General entrance is free but this exhibition has a fee of £16.50 per person (booking fee £1). Members go free. Pre-booking is advisable at peak times and is available at


The myth of Osiris (short version)

Geb, the sky god, and Nut, the earth goddess had four children: Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. Since gods cannot marry outside their own kind, Osiris married his sister Isis, while Set married Nephthys (this pattern was then continued through the Egyptian pharaohs so that brother would usually marry sister). For whatever reason (there are many versions of this myth) Set killed Osiris and dismembered the body, scattering the pieces far and wide. The sisters joined together and reunited the body using embalming and funerary rites, hence Osiris becomes the very first mummy. When he is whole again Isis conceives their son Horus (again, the details here are a bit hazy as he is still a mummy!). Osiris cannot come back to the land of the living so rules the realm of the dead, said to be reborn through Horus who then became one of the most revered gods.

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