Sunken Ancient Egyptian Port-City Reveals Some Of Its Secrets

The ancient Egyptian sunken port-city of Thonis-Heracleion is now having some of its secrets revealed thanks to new research from the University of Oxford. The port-city served as the obligatory gateway to Egypt sometime around the first millennium BC, being the place where incoming cargo from other regions was inventoried and taxed, before being transferred to Egyptian ships for transport down the Nile.


The region where this city was once located is now under water, and is located about 6.5 kilometers off of the present day coastline. Makes you wonder what the coastlines of the world will look like in a thousand or so years, and what modern cities will be underwater by then. When you factor in modern anthropogenic climate change, and the rate at which the seas are predicted to rise with it, it is likely to be quite a few.

“This obligatory port of entry, known as ‘Thonis’ by the Egyptians and ‘Heracleion’ by the Greeks, was where seagoing ships probably unloaded their cargoes to have them assessed by temple officials and taxes extracted before transferring them to Egyptian ships that went upriver. Before the foundation of Alexandria, it was one of the biggest commercial hubs in the Mediterranean because of its geographical position at the mouth of the Nile.”

The city is a somewhat recent archaeological find, the first traces of the city were found only as recently as the year 2000, by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM).

“In the ports of the city, divers and researchers are currently examining 64 Egyptian ships, dating between the eighth and second centuries BC, many of which appear to have been deliberately sunk. The project researchers say the ships were found beautifully preserved, lying in the mud of the sea-bed. With 700 examples of different types of ancient anchor, the researchers believe this represents the largest nautical collection from the ancient world.”

“The survey has revealed an enormous submerged landscape with the remains of at least two major ancient settlements within a part of the Nile delta that was crisscrossed with natural and artificial waterways,” said Dr Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

“One of the key questions is why several ship graveyards were created close to the port. Ship 43 appears to be part of a large cluster of at least ten other vessels in a large ship graveyard about a mile from the mouth of the River Nile,” explained Dr Robinson. “This might not have been simple abandonment, but a means of blocking enemy ships from gaining entrance to the port-city. Seductive as this interpretation is, however, we must also consider whether these boats were sunk simply to use them for land reclamation purposes.”

Elsbeth van der Wilt, working on the project from the University of Oxford, said: “Thonis-Heracleion played an important role in the network of long-distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, since the city would have been the first stop for foreign merchants at the Egyptian border. Excavations in the harbour basins yielded an interesting group of lead weights, likely to have been used by both temple officials and merchants in the payment of taxes and the purchasing of goods. Amongst these are an important group of Athenian weights. They are a significant archaeological find because it is the first time that weights like these have been identified during excavations in Egypt.”

Over 300 statuettes and amulets dating back to the Late and Ptolemaic Periods were also found in the area, amongst them both Egyptian and Greek subjects are depicted.

Sanda Heinz, from the University of Oxford, said: “The statuettes and amulets were all found underwater, and are generally in excellent condition. The statuettes allow us to examine their belief system and at the same time have wider economic implications. These figures were mass-produced at a scale hitherto unmatched in previous periods. Our findings suggest they were made primarily for Egyptians; however, there is evidence to show that some foreigners also bought them and dedicated them in temples abroad.”

Image Credit: Sunken Ship via Wikimedia Commons

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