Review of the British Museum’s Sunken Cities Exhibition

This post reviews the British Museum’s new Sunken Cities exhibition, which I recently visited. Photography is forbidden in the exhibition, so I haven’t been able to include any pictures from it here, but you can get a taste of the experience on the British Museum website.  Most professional reviewers seemed to enjoy it, but some suggested it would benefit from more lighting and less ambient music. The Guardian newspaper positively disliked it, complaining that it ‘patronises with Indiana Jones-style nonsense’ to compensate for dull objects.

I’m happy to say  that I found the Guardian’s reviewer completely missed the point. The exhibition contains an interesting mix of material recently excavated from the ‘Sunken Cities’ of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, contextualised with objects from other sites, periods and countries. Brief videos of the retrieval of the artefacts reveal the reality of underwater excavation, and the necessary scientific care that elevates excavation above ‘treasure hunting’ for ‘pretty things’, giving even the humblest artefact the opportunity to shine.  The low lighting, blue colour and music do manage to evoke an undersea feel, even an intimacy, but they are not strictly necessary as the objects are good enough to stand on their own merit. Far from a ‘weird pastiche’, the quality of the statuary shows that even in this late period Egyptian stone carving could be second to none, while the hybridisation of Greek and Egyptian styles produced some breathtaking work. The lighting felt a little low, but the objects were well lit, and the music was so inoffensive and bland I rapidly tuned it out.

The exhibition details the discovery and underwater excavation of the twin cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, which lie submerged beneath Aboukir Bay on the north-western edge of the Nile delta, 30km east of Alexandria. The details of their discovery are briefly covered in the exhibition, but there are more details in the catalogue and in this New Statesman article (Thanks to Jan Piction of Petrie Museum Unofficial Page for the link). In a largely successful attempt to provide more information about the discovery, underwater excavation and lifting processes, there are regular videos throughout the exhibition showing the excavation of principal artefacts. These videos provide a welcome reminder that these are carefully excavated objects, whose provenance provides much of the scientific information that makes them so interesting.

The cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus had their heyday in the Late period (664-332 BC) and Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC). Although Ptolemaic art is sometimes derided as a ‘pastiche’, the artefacts in this exhibition demonstrate that at its best it can be breathtakingly beautiful. The truly stunning statue of Arsinoe II is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen and perfectly demonstrates the heights that could be reached when Egyptian and Greek artistry were combined. A similar, later statue known as ‘The Black Queen’, that probably shows Cleopatra III as Isis, demonstrates that even when less inspired, Ptolemaic carving was of a high quality.

The layout is rather good. Monumental statuary is scattered throughout the exhibition, including three colossi (of the Nile god Hapy, a Ptolemaic Pharaoh and his Queen) from the Aswan granite quarries that also produced the Unfinished Obelisk. Smaller cases containing medium and small objects are located around the larger objects, allowing the visitor to see objects from all around and giving a sense of intimacy. Coming around one case I suddenly came upon the rather well-preserved rear of a granodiorite sphinx. His neatly carved tail, curling tightly around his hindquarters, was so appealing I had to restrain myself from patting it.

The excavations also found exciting new evidence for the rituals of the Osiris cult. These rituals are known from both Greco-Roman writers and inscriptions in Egyptian temples, but this is the first time archaeologists have found in situ physical remains of the riverine processions. These remains provide evidence for the physical context of activities described in the texts, and how the rituals were undertaken at Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus. Situations where we have archaeological and textual evidence of the same events are extremely valuable, because the two different types of evidence provide complementary insights into the ritual intent expressed in the texts, and the practical undertaking revealed by the archaeological record.

The discovery of the remains of the riparian Osirian processions prompted the inclusion of some exceedingly interesting artefacts in the exhibition. These explored the myths and rituals of Osiris across a wide temporal, geographical and stylistic range.  From a traditional Egyptian Osiris in sycamore wood to an entirely Greek Serapis, the artefacts demonstrate both the Egyptian and Greek Osirian traditions and their hybridisation.  The famous 13th Dynasty (c. 1747 BC) cult statue showing Isis reviving Osiris harks back to the origins of both deity and rituals in Middle Kingdom Abydos, while a second century AD Roman oil lamp showing Isis nursing Horus demonstrates the longevity of these deities and their  geographical range. This oil lamp comes from the town of Durolevum near Faversham in Kent, and is a reminder that the British Museum is only 2.6km from a Roman temple to Isis that once stood on the banks of the Walbrook river, south of Bank station in London.

It is difficult to put on an exhibition that honestly represents the process of archaeological excavation, explains to the visitor the excitement of discovering new information,  and includes sufficiently interesting objects while avoiding the impression that archaeology is all about treasure hunting. Sunken Cities largely succeeds! Far from patronising the visitor, it brings you close to some truly beautiful objects, but still manages to show the reality of underwater excavation. The artefacts from Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus are contextualised with other objects from different periods, giving a greater perspective and revealing how this new evidence fits into our understanding of the Nile delta, the Ptolemaic period, the mixing of Greek and Egyptian cultures, and the Osiris cult. If you feel the need for more information, the exhibition catalogue includes both pictures of the objects (with the museum numbers that are missing from the displays) and more background information about individual pieces and the excavation of the cities.

Overall I found the Sunken Cities exhibition a thoroughly enjoyable experience and would definitely recommend it. It is both artistic and informative. I have rarely been as stunned by the beauty of a statue as I was during this exhibition. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some artefacts that I have only seen before in textbooks, discovering Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus for myself and getting close to new evidence about the rituals of the Osiris cult. If you are in London before the exhibition closes on 27 November 2016 then don’t miss out.

References

Tickets can be booked online at British Museum Sunken Cities exhibition and entry is free to Members.

The exhibition catalogue Goddio, F. and Masson-Berghoff, A. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. Thames and Hudson, provides images of the objects, a description of the discovery of the site, and background information on both the artefacts and their context. There is also a dvd showing the excavation of some of the objects, which is free if you buy the catalogue. 

 

The failed (Egyptian) obelisk.

Apart from the many giant monolithic obelisks that survive in Egypt and elsewhere, there is one obelisk that is famous for its failure. The Unfinished Obelisk at Aswan would have been the largest ever erected at 42m, but it never left the quarry. This photo-essay looks at some of my images of the Unfinished Obelisk and briefly considers its significant for Egyptian archaeology.

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The unfinished obelisk from the bottom, showing cracks from its ‘failure’ and subsequent attempts to carve it up.

At some time during its extraction from the Aswan granite, a large crack developed running lengthwise up the obelisk. The obelisk was abandoned, either because the stone was felt to be fatally flawed, or because the crack was too large for the masons to carve an obelisk of sufficient size to fulfill their commission.

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The unfinished obelisk in the Aswan granite quarries.

Attempts were made to carve up the defunct obelisk to produce smaller granite items (leaving smaller, straight cracks across the obelisk at various points), but these were aborted, leaving the Unfinished Obelisk tethered to the granite.

Still bound to the living rock, the Unfinished Obelisk is a valuable source of information concerning stone quarrying and obelisk extraction. The trenches around the sides of the obelisk clearly show the use of pounders to separate the obelisk from the bedrock and these are even more visible around other partially excavated granite objects in the quarries.

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A partially excavated colossal granite statue blank, showing the grooves left by stone pounders (left) and the author sitting in the overhang where the object would have been separated from the bedrock.

It was originally thought that these trenches were cut purely by endless pounding of the bedrock, using hard stones and sand to slowly wear away the granite (Engelbach 1923), but recent research and experimental archaeology demonstrate that fire was used to weaken the granite before pounding, making it possible to extract obelisks more quickly and with fewer workmen.

The new and continuing research into stone quarrying demonstrates how valuable unfinished stone artefacts are. In its failure as an obelisk, the unfinished obelisk has found a different kind of fame amongst archaeologists and tourists, and is arguably more useful than its perfectly finished brothers and sisters. Its quarry is now a tourist attraction, with an open air museum, and it forms part of a network of important ancient stone quarries recorded around Aswan and recently studied by the Quarryscapes Project.

References

Engelbach, R. 1923. The problem of the obelisks, from a study of the unfinished obelisk at Aswan. T. F Unwin Ltd, London.

Habachi, L. 1977. The Obelisks of Egypt. New York: Charles Scribner.

Per Storemyr’s blog contains several posts of relevance to stone quarrying and obelisks and links to a recent article detailing evidence for the use of fire in hard stone quarrying.

For a general introduction to stone artefacts and stone quarrying in Egypt see also Aston B. G. Harrell, J. A and Shaw, I. 2000. Stone. In P. T Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge University Press.