15 march 2013

Maritime trade thrived in Egypt, even before Alexandria

All images courtesy of Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

New research into Thonis-Heracleion, a sunken port-city that served as the gateway to Egypt in the first millennium BC, is being examined at an international conference at the University of Oxford. The port city, situated 6.5 kilometres off today’s coastline, was one of the biggest commercial hubs in the Mediterranean before the founding of Alexandria.

The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford is collaborating on the project with the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) in cooperation with Egypt's Ministry of State for Antiquities.

This obligatory port of entry, known as ‘Thonis’ by the Egyptians and ‘Heracleion’ by the Greeks, was where seagoing ships are thought to have unloaded their cargoes to have them assessed by temple officials and taxes extracted before transferring them to Egyptian ships that went upriver. 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. Researchers say the ships were found beautifully preserved, l 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. Dr Robinson, who is overseeing the excavation of one of the submerged ships known as Ship 43, has discovered that the Egyptians had a unique shipbuilding style. He is also examining why the boats appear to have been deliberately sunk close to the port.

‘One of the key questions is why several ship graveyards were created about one mile from the mouth of the River Nile. Ship 43 appears to be part of a large cluster of at least ten other vessels in a large ship graveyard,’ 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.’

Divers at Thonis Heracleion
Credit: Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

The port and its harbour basins also contain a collection of customs decrees, trading weights, and evidence of coin production. The material culture, for example, coin weights, will also be discussed at the conference, placing this into the wider narrative of how maritime trade worked in the ancient world.

Elsbeth van der Wilt, 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.’

Another Oxford researcher, Sanda Heinz, is analysing more than 300 statuettes and amulets from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods, including Egyptian and Greek subjects. The majority depict Egyptian deities such as Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus. ‘The statuettes and amulets are generally in excellent condition,’ she said. ‘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.’

Franck Goddio, Director of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology and Visiting Senior Lecturer in Maritime Archaeology at the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, commented: ‘The discoveries we have made in Thonis-Heracleion since 2000 thanks to the work of a multidisciplinary team and the support of the Hilti Foundation are encouraging. Charts of the city’s monuments, ports and channels are taking shape more clearly and further crucial information is gathered each year.’