Reg Little discovers how Oxford is playing a key role in unlocking Med’s seabed secrets

More than a decade ago one of the world’s most famous deep-sea divers travelled to Oxford to deliver a lecture.

Well known for his excavation of Napoleon’s ships, sunk by Lord Nelson off the coast of Egypt, the French maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio had travelled to the city to seek help with an altogether bigger project.

He wished to pursue a quest to rediscover the lost ancient city of Heracleion-Thonis, once the gateway to Egypt, that was submerged about 1,200 years ago.

He had found first traces of the fabled city 6.5kms off today’s coastline in 2000, while working on Napoleon’s lost fleet.

Oxford University, with academics of the calibre of Barry Cunliffe and Roland Smith, became an early port of call as the place with the expertise to help understand the dramatic discoveries.

The invitation to work with important, well-preserved archaeological finds that had lain untouched and protected by sand on the sea floor for centuries was eagerly accepted and the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology was created.

In addition to its research, conferences and publications on the treasures, the Oxford centre has for more than a decade given postgraduates the chance to take part in the ongoing underwater excavations near Alexandria.

With the support of the Hilti Foundation, divers have recovered important ancient landmarks of the city at the mouth of the Nile, which in classical times was at the heart of trade routes between Egypt and Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean. Heracleion was said by the Greek writer Herodotus to have been visited by Helen of Troy with her glamorous lover Paris.

Giant, 16-foot statues have been discovered and brought to the surface, with hundreds of smaller statues of minor gods found on the sea floor.

Michael Hilti, President of the Hilti Foundation Board, earlier summed up the excitement as the sunken city began giving up its treasure.

“The sight of the monumental statue of the Egyptian queen as goddess Isis overgrown with algae is as captivating as the impressive picture of the diver lifting the massive head of ancient healing god Sarapis from the waters,” he recalled.

“He looks furious after spending many centuries on the sea bed. The art treasures recovered from the sea – statues, ceramics, jewels and gold coins – are splendidly eloquent testimony of a glorious past.”

The rediscovery of Heracleion, through which goods flowed into and out of Egypt during the Egyptian Late Period, has been the subject of television documentaries and books. They have focused on the painstaking quest and excavation work. Using 3D animation, the structures of the ancient city have again become visible.

Until Goddio’s excavations, the only evidence that the fabled city existed as a gateway to the land of the pharaohs, long before Alexandria was founded, was in the texts of writers such as Strabo, Herodotus and the Greek historian Diodorus.

Diodorus recorded that Heracleion, the same name as the ancient capital of Crete, was named in gratitude to the Greek god Heracles, who stopped a Nile flood.

Looking at the photographs of statues of Egyptian gods and sunken colonnades, it can appear that someone has emptied the contents of the Museum of Cairo on the bottom of the Mediterranean, while the images of building foundations appear akin to an underwater Pompeii.

The remains of 64 ships have also been found and Oxford University divers since 2001 have focused on one vessel, dated at between 785BC and 480BC, and simply identified it as Shipwreck 43.

Previously operating from offices in the Old Jam Factory in Frideswide Square, the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology is based in equally humble office accommodation in Little Clarendon Street. Only a hefty volume of Egypt’s Sunken Treasures, with a diver shining a light into the smiling face of an Egyptian god on the cover, offers any clue to the work overseen here.

Dr Damian Robinson, director of the centre, said: “The ship that we are investigating is within a group of eight of similar size.”

It is thought they could have been deliberately sunk after long lives as river barges, and used for land reclamation purposes or to form part of a defence scheme.

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Preliminary excavations at the stern of the flat-bottomed 24-metre long vessel suggested it was of a distinctive form of naval architecture that has not been previously documented. The ship would have probably operated in the shallows, carrying cargo.

Heracleion was an important port for import tax, operated by the main temple.

While it was to see the transfer of commercial activities to Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great and destined to become one of the Mediterranean’s great ports, Heracleion, while losing its economic importance, was to maintain its religious influence.

Dr Robinson said the ships were well preserved as a result of being buried in thick clay and sand. Gold coins and weights made from bronze and stone have been found, throwing light on the trade that went on.

Dozens of small limestone sarcophagi were also recently uncovered by divers and are believed to have once contained mummified animals, put there to appease the gods.

Dr Robinson, who regularly dives at the site, said: “It is the largest number of ancient ships found in one place and we have found over 700 ancient anchors so far. But the work can be difficult. The visibility is not good.”

Once a major international trading port, Heracleion, built in the eighth century BC, now lies under 150ft of water in the Bay of Aboukir.

The port of Alexandria was lost over 1,600 years ago in a series of natural catastrophes, with the royal quarters sinking beneath the sea after earthquakes and tidal waves led to gradual subsidence in the fourth century AD.

What caused Heracleion to slip into the water is much less certain but it is thought to be linked with a rise in sea level coupled with the collapse of unstable sediment.

“It is a pristine archaeological site,” said Dr Robinson, who said the site had been a restricted military area until the 1980s.

Postgraduates diving at the site live on a research ship.

The fieldwork is undertaken with the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, under the direction of Goddio. The Hilti Foundation, which has supported the work of Franck Goddio over years funds three postgraduates at the Oxford centre. Much of their time is dedicated to handling some of the hundreds of pieces coming up from the seabed.

Some of this material will be featured in a major exhibition to be held in Germany next year, which Dr Robinson hopes will later come to the UK.

With 16 centuries of history to explore over an underwater site measuring 110 square kilometres, it would appear that Oxford is only at the beginning of its work in helping to reveal and understand Heracleion-Thonis.