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British Museum launches first major exhibition of underwater archaeology

Release date:
30 November 2015
The British Museum is to stage a major exhibition on two lost Egyptian cities and their recent rediscovery by archaeologists beneath the Mediterranean seabed

The BP exhibition Sunken cities Egypt’s lost worlds opens 19 May 2016

The British Museum is to stage a major exhibition on two lost Egyptian cities and their recent rediscovery by archaeologists beneath the Mediterranean seabed. Opening in May 2016 for an extended run of six months, The BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds will be the Museum’s first large-scale exhibition of underwater discoveries. It will show how the exploration of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus – submerged at the mouth of the River Nile for over a thousand years – is transforming our understanding of the relationship between ancient Egypt and the Greek world and the great importance of these ancient cities.


300 outstanding objects will be brought together for the exhibition including more than 200 spectacular finds excavated off the coast of Egypt near Alexandria between 1996 and 2012. Important loans from Egyptian museums rarely seen before outside Egypt (and the first such loans since the Egyptian revolution) will be supplemented with objects from various sites across the Delta drawn from the British Museum’s collection; most notably from Naukratis – a sister harbour town to Thonis-Heracleion and the first Greek settlement in Egypt.


Likely founded during the 7th century BC, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were busy, cosmopolitan cities that once sat on adjacent islands at the edge of the fertile lands of the Egyptian Delta, intersected by canals. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332BC, centuries of Greek (Ptolemaic) rule followed. The exhibition will reveal how cross-cultural exchange and religion flourished, particularly the worship of the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris.


By the 8th century AD, the sea had reclaimed the cities and they lay hidden several meters beneath the seabed, their location and condition unclear. Although well-known from Egyptian decrees and Greek mythology and historians, past attempts to locate them were either fruitless or very partial. The exhibition will show how a pioneering European team led by Franck Goddio in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities made use of the most up-to-date technologies to find them.


Thanks to the underwater setting, a vast number of objects of great archaeological significance have been astonishingly well preserved. Pristine monumental statues, fine metalware and gold jewellery will reveal how Greece and Egypt interacted in the late first millennium BC. These artefacts offer a new insight into the quality and unique character of the art of this period and show how the Greek kings and queens who ruled Egypt for 300 years adopted and adapted Egyptian beliefs and rituals to legitimise their reign.


The exhibition will feature a number of extraordinary, monumental sculptures. A 5.4m granite statue of Hapy, a divine personification of the Nile’s flood, will greet visitors as they enter the space. Masterpieces from the Egyptian museums such as the Apis bull from the Serapeum in Alexandria will be shown alongside magnificent recent finds from the sea. One such piece is the stunning sculpture from Canopus representing Arsinoe II (the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty). The Greco-Macedonian queen became a goddess beloved to both Egyptians and Greeks after her death and is depicted here as the perfect embodiment of Aphrodite, a goddess of beauty ‘who grants fortunate sailing’.


The exhibition will also cover the arrival of Greeks in Egypt, when they were hosts and not rulers; privileged but controlled by the pharaohs. A complete stela from Thonis-Heracleion advertises a 380BC royal decree of the Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo I. It states that 10% of the taxes collected on all goods imported from the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ into Thonis-Heracleion and on all trade operations at Naukratis were to be donated to an Egyptian temple.


A wide range of objects, from modest to grand and costly, bears witness to the piety of both inhabitants and visitors at these major religious centres. Lead models of barges uncovered in the sacred waterway linking Thonis-Heracleion to Canopus are unique and moving finds. They are associated with the Mysteries of Osiris, the most popular festival celebrated annually across Egypt during the month of Khoiak (mid-October to mid-November). Ranging in size from 6 to 67cm, these reproduce in metal a flotilla of 34 papyrus barges that would have been displayed on a waterway to celebrate the first sacred navigation of the festival. According to religious texts, each barge was to measure 67.5 cm and to bear the figure of an Egyptian god, and would have been illuminated by 365 lamps. The lead barges are lasting testimonies possibly left by people who, long ago, celebrated this festival in the Canopic region.


Only a tiny proportion of these sites have revealed their secrets. The on-going underwater archaeological mission continues to bring to light new masterpieces and further research every year as the most recent finds from 2012 will show.

Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman of the British Museum said, “It’s hugely exciting to be announcing the British Museum’s first large-scale exhibition of underwater discoveries and to be welcoming these important loans to London. We are grateful to BP for their ongoing support without which ambitious exhibitions such as these would simply not be possible. We’re also delighted to be working with Franck Goddio, his expert team at IEASM, the Hilti Foundation and of course our Egyptian colleagues to bring the extraordinary story of these lost cities to life.”


His Excellency Nasser Kamel, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United Kingdom, said "As well as looking for partners to invest in the Egyptian economy, Egypt is always searching for partners to help in exploring its heritage and treasures which are still hidden under its lands, and waters. This exhibition shows that despite what we know of its tremendous history and culture, Egypt still has a lot more to offer to
the world and we thank our partners in the UK, such as BP, for working with us in utilizing our resources to develop our economy and through such an exhibition unraveling our history as well. I invite the people of Britain to visit this exhibition to get a glimpse of what Egypt has to offer, and come to Egypt to live that experience."


Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive, BP, said, “BP is proud to support this fascinating exhibition which showcases the power of science and the pioneering spirit to discover what lies beneath the surface of the Nile Delta. By sharing these underwater treasures the British Museum is opening a whole new frontier for visitors to explore, and we are pleased to be a part of it.”

Franck Goddio, President of Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) and exhibition co-curator said “My team and I, as well as the Hilti Foundation, are delighted that the exhibition with discoveries from our underwater archaeological expeditions off the coast of Egypt will be on display at the British Museum. It enables us to share with the public the results of years of work at the sunken cities and our fascination for ancient worlds and civilizations. Placing our discoveries alongside selected masterpieces from the collections of Egyptian Museums, complemented by important objects from the British Museum, the exhibition presents unique insights into a fascinating period in history during which Egyptians and Greeks encountered each other on the shores of the Mediterranean.”


Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, exhibition curator at the British Museum said “People sometimes assume that when two cultures mix, the essence of each is diluted and, as a result, weakened; this exhibition demonstrates the opposite. It is a rare opportunity to reveal the beauty and strength of Late Pharaonic art and culture, alongside the latest research on the momentous intermingling between Egyptian and Greek communities in Egypt at this time. We are illustrating this vibrant cosmopolitan world through Egyptian, Greek and ‘hybrid’ artworks, rarely ever displayed side-by-side. It shows Ancient Egypt not as an isolated civilisation, but as the outward looking, influential and inclusive society that it was.”

Notes to editors

The BP exhibition

Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

19 May-27 November 2016

Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30),

British Museum

Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG


Supported by BP


Organised with Hilti Foundation and the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine, in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt.


Tickets £16.50, children under 16 free

Group rates available

Booking fees apply online and by phone


+44 (0)20 7323 8181


Opening times

Monday-Thursday 10.00-17.30; Friday 10.00-20.30; Saturday-Sunday 09.00-17.30. Last entry 80 minutes before closing time.


About BP

BP operates in 80 countries worldwide including Egypt. The company is proud of its longstanding partnership with Egypt over the past 50 years, and is committed to playing a key role in providing energy to the Egyptian domestic market and helping to meet the country’s energy demand.


Our many discoveries, on land and offshore, have been providing the people of Egypt with energy since the 1960’s and we are investing even further to unlock Egypt’s energy potential.


BP has a long history as a major supporter of arts and culture in the UK. We have partnered with the British Museum since 1996, supporting a diverse range of initiatives including the creation of the BP Lecture Theatre. Today our support for the Museum is focused on its special exhibitions programme.


BP’s long-term partnerships with the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House and Tate Britain, together represent one of the most significant corporate investments in UK arts and culture.


Hilti Foundation

Established in 1996 the Hilti Foundation finances and coordinates global "social responsibility" activities on behalf of the Hilti Group and the Hilti Family Trust. The Foundation is committed to a select range of innovative and sustainable projects, particular in the cultural, social and educational domain. Since 1996, the focus of the Hilti Foundation's cultural as well as scientific commitment has been the support of the underwater archaeological projects of Franck Goddio and his team of the IEASM off the coast of Egypt.




IEASM Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine

The Institut Européen d'Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) is a non-profit organisation, directed by Franck Goddio since its foundation in 1987. Its aim is the location, exploration, excavation and restoration of sunken sites in cooperation with the national authorities. IEASM calls upon scientists and specialists of different scientific field to support its research missions, to study and publish the findings. Furthermore, it partners to set up exhibitions allowing the general public to get access to its discoveries.




The British Museum in Egypt

The British Museum collaborates with the Ministry of Antiquities and other institutions in Egypt on research, fieldwork and training. This includes research excavations at Naukratis and Elkab, and participation in fieldwork at Berenike, Aswan and Asyut. A new project to train Egyptian archaeologists in object documentation commenced in October 2015 (supported by the Arcadia Fund), while each year sees Egyptian curators participate in the International Training Programme.

Further information

The beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds, edited by Franck Goddio and Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, will be published on 16 May 2016 by Thames & Hudson in partnership with the British Museum. Hardback £40, paperback £25.


The exhibition will be accompanied by a full public programme.


Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter with #SunkenCities and follow the Museum @britishmuseumAbout BPBP is proud to support the British Museum’s Sunken Cities exhibition in 2016, an exciting showcase of wonderful subsea discoveries from the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.


For further information on the British Museum please contact the press office: 

Phone: +44 20 7323 8583 / 8394

Email: communications@britishmuseum.org