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Divers Discover Ancient Temples, Treasure, and Ceremonial Boat in Sunken Egyptian City

The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced this week that a team of divers has made some pretty remarkable discoveries in the ancient sunken city of Heracleion. Because the only thing better than a lost ancient Egyptian city is a lost and sunken ancient Egyptian city.

According to a statement by the Ministry of Antiquities, the team found multiple ancient temples, gold coins, precious jewels, and a sizable ceremonial boat during their two month long excavation of the site. The city of Heracleion rose to prominence during the last days of the Pharaohs, as the Ptolemaic dynasty began their rule over the Egyptian coast. The city was named for the Greek hero of myth Heracles (better known by his Roman name: Hercules) who, according to ancient legend, actually visited the city and was presumably such a cool guy that they changed the name from the original Egyptian name, Thonis, to Heracleion in his muscly honor.

Beyond Heracles, the city was mentioned in many stories, both legendary and historical. Myth holds that Heracleion was one of the last stops of Paris and Helen of Troy fleeing from the jealous King Menelnaus before the Trojan war. Queen Cleopatra was also crowned in a temple in Heracleion. The website of Franck Goddio, the underwater archaeologist who discovered Heracleion, describes the city’s mysterious history:

Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city) is a city lost between legend and reality. Before the foundation of Alexandria in 331 BC, the city knew glorious times as the obligatory port of entry to Egypt for all ships coming from the Greek world. It had also a religious importance because of the temple of Amun, which played an important role in rites associated with dynasty continuity. The city was founded probably around the 8th century BC, underwent diverse natural catastrophes, and finally sunk entirely into the depths of the Mediterranean in the 8th century AD.

Franck Goddi and engraving found at Heracleion

Archaeologist Franck Goddio with an engraving found at Heracleion. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

Heracleion was first discovered in 2000 by Franck Goddio, and has slowly been excavated over the past 19 years. Goddio led the latest two-month-long excavation, which proved much more fruitful than previous endeavors thanks to modern technology. The team of European and Egyptian archaeologists used an underwater imaging tool to locate artifacts on the sea floor and those buried beneath.

On the latest expedition, the team discovered the crumbling remains of a large Egyptian temple including the massive stone columns, as well as a smaller Greek temple buried beneath three feet of sediment on the ocean floor. The team also found the missing chunk of a large ceremonial boat. Previous expeditions had uncovered 75 different boats, mostly incomplete. This find completes one of those previously discovered, a 43-foot-long ornate boat stuffed with coins and jewelry that the Ministry of Antiquities says was likely used for ceremonial purposes.

Heracleion statue

Statue of a Ptolemaic queen. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

The treasures found inside the boat include gold jewelry and coins that date to the reign of King Ptolemy II, who ruled from 283 to 246 B.C. They also found pottery dating to the fourth century B.C.

The team also surveyed another sunken city, Canopus, and found that the city was half a mile larger than previously thought. They recovered some coins and pottery from Canopus which, according to the Ministry of Antiquities, indicates that this city was also a bustling port town from the fourth century B.C. through the Islamic period.

The number of “lost” cities being found and excavated seems to be increasing exponentially as our ability to image previously unassailable locations gets better and better. There’s no telling how many forgotten places, people, and stories have yet to be discovered.