I would like to give you a brief update on what my team and I have been working on during the last couple of months. Our mission to Egypt took place in September/October this year when, in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, we returned to the harbour of Alexandria and the port-city of Thonis-Heracleion. You can find a short summary of what we discovered below. 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of our underwater research in Alexandria: I cannot believe how quickly the time has passed. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Hilti Foundation for their tremendous support during all of these years, without their help such extensive archaeological work wouldn't be possible.
I am looking forward to the next conference of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA) in March, which will examine the role of Heracleion as an important Egyptian harbour town in the Late Period. There is also a new OCMA publication out on the stele (Decree of Saïs) that we discovered in Heracleion. One last tip for people in the US: there is only few days left to see the Cleopatra exhibition with finds from Alexandria and Aboukir Bay at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. You can get information and tickets at: www.californiasciencecenter.org.
My team and I wish you a happy and peaceful holiday season.
Building further on the results of the topographical study and the archaeological material unearthed in 2010 and 2011, we continued excavations on the southern branch of Antirhodos Island in the destruction levels of the "Isis sanctuary". There were reasons to believe that an Isea stood in this area of Alexandria's Western Harbour in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.
Our research has revealed that a 40-metre long building was constructed on a mortar base at the edge of the island, stabilised with piles and pile planks. Large limestone blocks were used for the foundations of the building, while the walls were constructed from smaller limestone blocks.
Large limestone blocks excavated in the harbour of Alexandria.
The columns currently lying to the west of Antirhodos were once part of this sanctuary, which was decorated with painted walls and mosaic floors, fragments of which were unearthed when we excavated the building's destruction levels. Alongside these architectural remains we also found a rich assemblage of archaeological objects, most of which may have been deliberately given as gifts to the Goddess. Most of the lead tesserae depict divinities, such as the god of the Nile, Serapis, Zeus-Ammon, Isis, etc., while objects such as miniature jars and an anchor, a perfectly sculpted oyster or a small altar with terracotta horns are examples of the small, personal gifts given. A finely engraved bronze patera decorated with an ox-skull on the handle was certainly part of the equipment of the temple. Aside from these votive donations a range of pottery was also recovered from the excavations: oil lamps, amphora, as well as fine and common ceramics, give us a date range that corresponds to the temple's occupation from middle of the 1st century B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D.
Once again in Thonis-Heracleion the aim of the underwater excavations was to improve our knowledge of its topography. The research is based upon observing the current state of the seafloor using geophysical and geological surveying instruments, which allow us to investigate the ancient submerged topography and target our excavations. This methodical and systematic approach, when applied to our area of the western coastline of the Nile Delta, has allowed us to interpret a ribbon of dunes separating the harbour basins from the former Canopic branch of the Nile as it entered the Mediterranean. It has also allowed us to examine and clarify the topography layout of the harbour basins and the city's "sacred area(s)".
In three previous missions, starting in 2009, excavations to the south of the main temple also investigated structures belonging to the sanctuary, including a boundary wall of limestone blocks and a docking area at the edge of a waterway in which a shipwreck was also discovered. The archaeological objects found during the excavation of a destruction layer following the collapse of the temple wall, include a number of intact Ptolemaic period ceramics dating from the 3rd – 2nd century B.C.
Measurements are taken of a ship discovered at Thonis-Heracleion.
Another excavation that started last year to the north of the temple, was returned to. This area, near a harbour basin and a passageway providing access to the ancient Nile, was particularly interesting as last year's excavations had revealed the presence of twelve finely-worked rectangular limestone "boxes" with covers on a layer of limestone fragments. It is likely that these were sarcophagi for mummies of small animals such as ibis. Faunal remains were also found during our excavations here and their analysis next year should provide us with further information about the types of animals the boxes may have contained. For now the assumption that they were ibis is made all the more attractive by the find of a bronze plaque with the inscription "Djehuti (Thot), the great god" and a standard bearer originally surmounted by an ibis, known to be the god Thot's sacred animal, which was discovered in the area. The mission also returned to the excavation of a ship, which was started last year, of ship no. 43, in the central harbour. This year, the work focused on documenting the aft end of the vessel, which is in a remarkable state of preservation.
The next OCMA conference will be held at Oxford University in March 2013 on the topic "Heracleion in context: The maritime economy of the Egyptian Late Period".
The purpose of the symposium is to explore the maritime trading economy of the Egyptian port of Thonis-Heracleion during the Late Period and place it within the wider context of maritime trade at this time. Heracleion was the gateway to Egypt, the obligatory port of entry and customs point. It was a vital node in the trading network of the eastern Mediterranean through which goods flowed into and out of Egypt.
The port and its harbour basins contain a remarkable collection of evidence for the maritime trading economy including customs decrees, trading weights, coin production as well as the remains of sixty-four ancient ships. These are set within a detailed understanding of the topography of the port-city, which has been investigated by the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM, www.ieasm.org). The symposium will present the latest work of scholars working on the excavation and post-excavation of Heracleion and will contextualise this through a series of wider ranging studies that examine the developing role of the port within the wider maritime trading economies of the Egyptian Late Period. More information and registration at: http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/heracleion-conference.html
OCMA has just published a new book on one of the remarkable finds from Thonis-Heracleion. The volume by Anne-Sophie von Bomhard focuses on a stele inscribed with hieroglyphs that convey a copy of the Decree of Saïs, which deals with the redistribution of taxes raised at the port.
The stele is astonishingly well preserved and served as one of the keys for the identification of the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion with the hieroglyphs naming the place where it was set up. The stele is also the twin of the Naukratis stele found in 1899, the difference between the two being mainly in the name of the place where they were erected. The publication is the first detailed study of the stele.
The Decree of Saïs by Anne-Sophie von Bomhard is the fifth volume in the Canopic region series of publications of the excavations by the IEASM in Aboukir Bay (Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology 2012, ISBN-13: 978-1-905905-23-2, international distributor: Oxbow Books).