Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (review)

P1070168 I recently went to see the British Museum’s current blockbuster exhibition, ‘Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds’ (on until November 27th), which showcases recent finds from the cities of Thonis-Herakleion and Canopus, port cities on the edge of the Nile Delta which are now largely underwater; the exhibition also includes material from the BM’s excavations at Naukratis (a Greek trading settlement upriver from the two ports) as well a large number of loans from Egyptian museums. It’s a pretty stunning collection, particularly the sculptures – a giant statue of Hapy, god of the Nile’s flood, opens the exhibition, and later on there’s another pair of giant (i.e over 5m tall) statues, representing a Ptolemaic king and queen; some of the smaller statues are equally impressive, like the beautiful one of Queen Arsinoe II wearing an essentially transparent piece of drapery that shows incredible skill in carving.

The exhibition roughly divides into two halves: the first deals with Greek-Egyptian contacts, particularly relating to the Ptolemaic period when Egypt was ruled by a dynasty founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Most of the focus is on the Ptolemies’ use of Egyptian religious and political symbolism and resulting connections between Greek and Egyptian religion: this is nicely illustrated by objects like the pair of statues mentioned above, or a gold plaque with a bilingual Greek-Egyptian inscription referring to the Egyptian deities Horus-the-Child and Osiris-Apis as their ‘equivalents’ Harpokrates and Serapis in the Greek version, but a broader context for these religious contacts mostly seems to be lacking. There’s a small part at the beginning about early trading contacts, with a few Greek coins, pots, dedications with inscriptions etc, but given that all three sites featured in the exhibition were important trading ports, and that Naukratis was actually settled by Greeks, it felt like a lot more could have been said about Greek-Egyptian contacts on a personal and/or commerical basis.

The whole thing also felt very Greek-centric: even the religious contacts were mainly presented from a Greek point of view, with texts emphasising how weird the Greeks found Egyptian gods in animal form (what about how weird the Egyptians probably found the Greek pantheon, with no animal gods at all?) There were lots of quotes from ancient texts posted up on the walls, but as far as I could see they were all from Greek historians, and while that may partly be due to the types of sources available (Herodotus is an easy go-to historian for quotes about weird Egyptian religious practices; I doubt there’s an Egyptian equivalent for their view of the Greeks), there were several Egyptian inscriptions in the exhibition dealing with, e.g., the taxation of foreign traders, which were only ever paraphrased in the labels, and I find it hard to believe there aren’t any suitable Egyptian quotes which could be used to show something of their interactions with and attitude towards the Greeks.

The second half of the exhibition focuses on the finds from Thonis-Herakleion relating to the Mysteries of Osiris, a fertility festival taking place all over Egypt every autumn. The rituals were already known from textual descriptions and iconography, but this is apparently the first archaeological discovery of objects used and dedicated in the course of the ritual procession of barges carrying images of Osiris. Understandably, the museum wants to illustrate what was known about the rituals before displaying the new finds: hence this section starts with a series of sculptures depicting various parts of the myth of Osiris (mostly not from Thonis-Herakleion or Canopus), followed by a room full of bowls, ladles, etc with explanations of the process by which the priests would make the images of Osiris – but the labelling here left it very unclear where all these objects came from and whether there actually was any reason to connect them with the ritual. I think they were supposed to be just for illustrative purposes, but the continued emphasis on the importance of the new discoveries plus the lack of concrete information about the actual objects probably left most visitors with the impression that there was far more ritual significance to these particular bowls (etc) than was necessarily justified.

It was only in the next room that it became clear what the actual new finds were: large quantities of objects dedicated in the canals of Thonis-Herakleion, presumably during the procession – more bowls and ladles, but also offering-tables, figurines, and (my favourite) a whole fleet of miniature lead barges, all found around an actual 10m-long wooden barge that had been deliberately sunk in the canal. (The barge itself is sadly still in situ on the sea-floor, but a full-size photograph on the floor of the gallery gives a good sense of its size and impressive state of preservation). Again, although this does look very like a deposit of offerings relating to a ritual involving barges, it wasn’t quite clear to me how we know this relates specifically to the Mysteries of Osiris (unless that was the only Egyptian ritual that ever involved transportation of anything by barge? Input from any Egyptologists welcome!). Perhaps I’m just being overly sceptical and there’s a lot of extra evidence that couldn’t be/wasn’t put on display, but if so, it’s a pity the BM didn’t include an extra text panel somewhere with a bit more information.

Despite these reservations, though, I really was impressed by the objects on display, and I’d highly recommend it for that reason – I’d guess a lot of the older finds don’t leave Egypt all that often, and the newer finds probably won’t either once they’ve finished their tour, so it’s a great chance to see them. But I’m also interested to know what other people thought, so please let me know in the comments!

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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