Underwater excavations carried out by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) reveal a burial mound in Thonis-Heracleion replete with offerings, among which are wicker baskets with fruit preserved to this day.

Thonis-Heracleion is an ancient city at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Egypt, excavated by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM).

The 2021 mission of the IEASM focused on the site, in the Bay of Aboukir. Thonis is the Egyptian name for the city while Heracleion is the Greek.

A tumulus (burial mound) measuring 60 m by 8 m was discovered alongside Thonis-Heracleion’s northeast entrance canal. According to a news release by IEASM, the area was covered with “hundreds of offerings with funerary connotations: imported luxury Greek ceramics, some with black and red figures, associated with terracotta figurines and amphorae [ceramic containers with pointed bottoms].”

What makes this find so special? The fact that it was preserved very well, down to a wicker basket and the grape seeds and doum fruit (the fruit of an African palm tree, often found in tombs) dating back 2,400 years.

The Guardian reports that “[wicker baskets filled with fruit that have survived from the 4th century BC and hundreds of ancient ceramic artefacts and bronze treasures] have lain untouched since the city disappeared beneath the waves in the second century BC, then sank further in the eight century AD, following cataclysmic natural disasters, including an earthquake and tidal waves.”

IEASM speculates that the fact that the hundreds of offerings remained untouched for centuries could be that they were “once placed within an underground room or were buried soon after being offered.”

The tumulus, according to IEASM, looks like a kind of island surrounded by channels. “Everywhere we found evidence of burned material,” says marine archaeologist Franck Goddio. “Spectacular ceremonies must have taken place there. The place must have been sealed for hundreds of years as we have found no objects from later than the early 4th century BC, even though the city lived on for several hundred years after that.”

The discovery of the tumulus speaks to the existence of Greek merchants and mercenaries in Thonis-Heracleion. IEASM’s news release describes the city as controlling the entrance to Egypt at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile. “The Greeks were allowed to settle in the city during the late Pharaonic period [712-332 BC]. They built their own sanctuaries close to the huge temple of Amun. Like the temple of Amun they were destroyed in the cataclysm in the 2nd  century BC.”

The God Bes was considered to be the protector of people in their daily life. He was also worshipped as the protector of pregnant women. Gold, 5th-4th century BC, Thonis-Heracleion.
The God Bes was considered to be the protector of people in their daily life. He was also worshipped as the protector of pregnant women. Gold, 5th-4th century BC, Thonis-Heracleion. (Christoph Gerigk / Courtesy of Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Before the foundation of Alexandria by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, Thonis-Heracleion had been the largest port of Egypt on the Mediterranean for centuries. According to the IEASM, the cities Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were buried under the sea after “several earthquakes, followed by tidal-waves … triggered land liquefaction events, [and] caused a 110 square kilometers portion of the Nile delta to collapse.”

IEASM discovered Canopus in 1999 and Thonis-Heracleion in 2000.

Stele (stone slab) covered in hieroglyphics found in Thonis-Heracleion.
Stele (stone slab) covered in hieroglyphics found in Thonis-Heracleion. (Wikimedia Commons)

The discovery of a galley

A galley (ship primarily moved by oars) was found at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Egypt by IEASM. The galley goes back to the Ptolemaic period – the Ptolemaic dynasty being the last dynasty of ancient Egypt, ruling from 305 to 30 BCE. According to a news release by IEASM, “she sank after being hit by huge blocks from the famed temple of Amun, which was totally destroyed during a cataclysmic event in the second century BC.”

The galley was moored in the canal by the temple, and the blocks falling from the temple of Amun sank it down, while protecting it from future events. The news release notes that the galley “lies under five metres of hard clay mingled with the remains of the temple and was only detected through the use of a cutting-edge prototype sub-bottom profiler.”

Goddio says finds of fast galleys from the Ptolemaic era are “extremely rare” and that there has only been one other example to date: the Punic Marsala ship, dating back to 235 BC. According to Goddio, the ship’s construction uses both Greek and Egyptian elements, and “allows us to speak of a mixed type of construction.”

The 25 metre long ship also had a large sail, and Goddio believes it was constructed in Egypt: ”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.”

IEASM is led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, and works in close cooperation with Egypt’s Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities, with the support of the Hilti Foundation.

Thumbnail photo: Precious donations made of Attic imported ceramics were deposited for funerary purposes by the Greek settlers in Thonis-Heracleion. End of 5th, beginning of 4th century BC.  Photo by Christoph Gerigk. Photo courtesy of Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Headline photo: Huge blocks of the destroyed temple of Amun in Thonis-Heracleion fell on top of a galley which was moored alongside and sank her. 2nd century BC. Photo by Christoph Gerigk. Photo courtesy of Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Source: TRT World