Scientists Discovered An Astonishing 1,200-Year-Old Secret At The Bottom Of The Ocean

Image: Franck Goddio

Around 30 feet beneath the surface, a team of archaeologists are at work on the Mediterranean seabed, in search of a lost legend. As they work, the secrets of the deep slowly begin to become clearer. And soon, an incredible find will forever change their understanding of the ancient world.

Image: Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

French archaeologist Franck Goddio – who was a key part of this team of explorers – has maritime adventure in his blood. His grandfather, after all, was a man named Eric de Bisschop. In addition to inventing the contemporary catamaran, de Bisschop was a leading expert of ancient South Pacific seafaring routes.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

A career in financial counseling once took Goddio all over the world. But at the start of the 1980s, he instead opted to concentrate on his true passion – underwater archaeology. After a time, he even established a non-profit group by the name of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM).

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

As IEASM president, Goddio has overseen explorations of quite a number of long-lost shipwrecks. Among the most exciting of these, it might be said, was a vessel named the Orient, which dated as far back as the 18th century. This was a French gunship supposedly once a part of Napoleon’s fleet.

Image: Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

In the year 1992 Goddio teamed up with an Egyptian governmental department called the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Consequently, he was tasked with mapping an area in Abu Qir Bay, which lies northeast of the city of Alexandria. Eight years on from this, he and his colleagues made an awe-inspiring discovery.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

According to historians, the bay was important because of its proximity to Alexandria. This is today a modern city, but it was once supposedly one of the ancient world’s cultural capitals. Centuries before that city’s founding in 331 B.C., however, another major settlement had apparently existed nearby. This was a city known as Heracleion.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Before Alexandria rose to power, the region was dominated by Heracleion – a great city whose roots are shrouded in legend. Believed to have been set up in the 8th century B.C., Heracleion grew in significance during the last days of the pharaohs. But up until recently, little was known about the mysterious metropolis.

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In fact, for a long time, all that researchers had to go on were a few scattered references in ancient texts. One such example came from the historian Herodotus, who was writing in the 5th century B.C. Herodotus claimed that the city – known as Thonis to the ancient Greeks – had once hosted Helen of Troy.

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Apparently, the renowned Greek beauty fled to the city with her lover Paris, seeking refuge from her jealous husband. But according to one version of the legend, the illicit couple were turned away by Thonis, the warden who guarded the mouth of the river Nile. In other accounts, however, it was Helen and her spouse King Menelaus who stayed there.

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Elsewhere, Herodotus also wrote about the legendary connections between the city and Zeus’ son Heracles. According to his account, a vast temple was erected on the spot where the notorious hero initially arrived in Egypt. Today, it’s believed that this connection led to the Greeks abandoning the name Thonis and favoring Heracleion in its place.

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According to historians, Heracleion eventually became one of the most important ports in ancient Egypt. Indeed, whenever ships arrived from the Greek world, they were obliged to pass through the city. And apparently, Heracleion was also known as a place where taxes were collected and as a hub of global trading.

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Interestingly, some believe that Heracleion was a place of religious significance, as well. At the heart of the city, a temple dedicated to the Egyptian deity Amun was used in undertaking dynastic ceremonies. Meanwhile, its sanctuaries were believed to have produced miracles, and pilgrims once flocked to the region.

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However, the glory days of Heracleion would eventually come to an end. After all, by the 2nd century B.C., nearby Alexandria was fast replacing it as Egypt’s major port. Meanwhile, a series of natural disasters wrought havoc on the foundations of the city and it began to disappear beneath the waves.

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Eventually, roughly 1,200 years ago, Heracleion vanished underneath the Mediterranean Sea. And by the time that modern historians came to consider the city, it’d become difficult to separate fact from fiction. In fact, there was speculation over whether or not it had actually existed. And despite its appearance in ancient texts, mystery had always surrounded its exact location.

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According to Strabo, a geographer writing around the first century B.C., Heracleion once occupied a position east of Canopus, a town located near the Nile. Up until recently, however, no evidence of the city had ever been found. Franck Goddio, nonetheless, believed it was real. And so, not long before the turn of the new millennium, he set out to find it.

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Goddio focused on Abu Qir Bay, an expanse of the Mediterranean Sea located some 12 miles to the east of modern-day Alexandria. And as it happened, he hadn’t been operating on a mere hunch. Reportedly, back in 1933 the commander of a Royal Air Force plane had spotted some submerged ruins while flying overhead.

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Beginning in 1996, Goddio and his team conducted surveys of the area. Initially, they studied ancient texts in order to build up a clearer picture of the city’s potential location. And ultimately, they honed in on a section of Abu Qir Bay, some four miles off the coast of Egypt.

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However, it wasn’t easy for the underwater archeologists to explore the region where they believed the ruins of Heracleion were. In this corner of the Mediterranean, after all, murky waters and storms often affected visibility. As a team member explained in a 2015 newsletter for Goddio’s website, “The sea is all stirred up, and charged with floating sand and mud that makes it difficult for us divers to see what’s going on.”

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To combat this, Goddio and his team used a combination of non-invasive techniques to map the area. And thanks to technologies such as satellite positioning systems, sonar and magnetic imaging, they were able to chart the sunken city. However, it would take four years of investigations before they were ready to begin exploring the site.

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Eventually, in the year 2000, excavations began. Armed with special equipment designed to blast away layers of sand, divers were able to expose the remains of Heracleion for the first time in centuries. And as they worked, the fascinating story of this ancient city – at one time only rumored to exist – began to emerge.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Beneath the surface, the team explored the ruins of the city’s landmarks, learning more about those who once lived there. And along the way, they also managed to clear up some misconceptions. For example, they uncovered evidence to confirm that Thonis and Heracleion were different names for the same settlement – not two individual places as many had believed.

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Acting in accordance with UNESCO guidelines, Goddio and his team were careful not to rush into disturbing the site. However, over time they were able to work with the relevant authorities to retrieve certain artifacts from the submerged ruins. And as they did so, the beauty and wealth of Heracleion became increasingly clear.

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Over the years, a number of artifacts were recovered from the seafloor and brought to the surface for research and conservation. On the smaller end of the scale, everyday objects provided a fascinating insight into daily life in ancient Egypt. And elsewhere, elaborate relics proved that Heracleion was once a grand city.

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A post on Goddio’s website described the finds. “The objects recovered from the excavations illustrate the cities’ beauty and glory, the magnificence of their grand temples and the abundance of historic evidence,” it read. “Colossal statues, inscriptions and architectural elements, jewelry and coins, ritual objects and ceramic – a civilization frozen in time.”

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Interestingly, the team recovered a significant amount of ceramics and coins dating from between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. And according to experts, this suggests that Heracleion was at the peak of its wealth and influence during this time. Meanwhile, they also discovered plenty of evidence to support the city’s status as a bustling port.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

In fact, Goddio and his team recovered a staggering array of seafaring relics from the waters. Among these were more than 70 shipwrecks and over 700 anchors, all believed to date from between the sixth and second centuries B.C. According to Goddio’s website, these finds today serve as an “eloquent testimony to the intensity of maritime activity [once] here.”

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Elsewhere throughout the course of the investigations, sculptures measuring 16 feet in height were also found. And as well as this, the explorers also happened upon limestones tombs, which may well have contained mummified animals. All in all, discoveries such as these gave some indication of what people’s beliefs might once have been like.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Heracleion, then, was no legend. It may have been lost to the sea, but Goddio had proven that it was once a thriving port city of international significance. And for the first time, historians were able to paint a picture of the area’s importance as an ancient center of trade.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Goddio and his team discovered that the city appeared to spread out from its central temple by way of a series of canals. And furthermore, some of these canals, it was found, surrounded some individual islets. Here, homes which harbored a number of rather small bronze statues were also brought to light.

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Sir Barry Cunliffe is an archaeology professor at the University of Oxford who was also involved in Heracleion’s excavation. Speaking to The Telegraph, he described the findings as “simply overwhelming.” As he explained, “By lying untouched and protected by sand on the sea floor for centuries they are brilliantly preserved.”

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The works conducted by the underwater archaeologists ultimately helped to paint a picture of what happened to Heracleion. Indeed, it appeared that the city’s network of canals – as well as the fact that it existed almost at sea level – meant that it had been vulnerable to rising waters or natural disasters. Indeed, both factors contributed to its eventual downfall.

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Throughout the course of the investigations, IEASM worked alongside researchers from Stanford University and the Smithsonian Institution.Together, they revealed that rising sea levels and soil subsidence had contributed to the flooding of Heracleion. But in the end, something altogether more cataclysmic ensured that the city’s eradication was as violent as it was swift.

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The tremors of a huge earthquake hit the city, likely followed by similarly devastating tidal waves. Together, these occurrences are believed to have been the final nail in the coffin for Heracleion. And their effects were made worse by the fact that the city was – slowly but surely – already sinking.

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In May 2016 some of the treasures taken to the surface from the ruins of Heracleion took center stage at the British Museum in London. The exhibition was entitled “Sunken Cities.” And ultimately, it represented the crowning glory for Goddio and his team after more than two decades of work.

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However, that was far from the end of Goddio’s relationship with Heracleion. Over the years, in fact, he’s headed up many more operations to explore the ruins of the sunken city. And in July 2019 it was reported that the archaeologist’s team had just completed an almost two-month mission there.

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With these latest works, Goddio and his team were able to learn even more about the city that he first discovered more than 20 years ago. Specifically, they uncovered more of Heracleion’s main temple – the edifice dedicated to the god Amun. And elsewhere, they also retrieved relics dating as far back as some 2,300 years.

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But those weren’t the only discoveries that the experts made during their latest visit to the site. According to reports, they also uncovered a selection of bronze coins believed to date to the time of King Ptolemy II. And in another section of the city, they found the ruins of a further temple.

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According to Goddio, the use of new surveying technology had been extremely helpful. It allowed the team to uncover parts of the site that hadn’t been explored before. Now, their map of Heracleion has been extended to include a cluster of ports that were unknown to researchers before this mission.

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Image: Christoph Gerigk for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Moreover, the team was also able to take a closer look at the numerous shipwrecks scattered around the ruins. In doing so, they found vessels that matched up with Herodotus’ accounts of the city. And they were also able to complete the excavation of a ship more than 40 feet in length.

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Even now, however, experts believe that as little as five percent of Heracleion has thus far been explored. But according to Goddio, the future looks bright. “What we know now is just a fraction,” he told the Guardian in 2016. “We are still at the very beginning of our search.”

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