Fascination underwater archaeology

Port of Alexandria, Egypt

For more than 1,000 years, the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus off the coast of Egypt had vanished from the history books - just like the legendary palace of the last Egyptian pharaoh, Cleopatra. They were rediscovered by Franck Goddio. The Frenchman is the world’s most renowned and successful underwater archaeologist. He not only made huge advances in this branch of science, but also truly revolutionized it with new state-of-the-art methods. From the very beginning, the Hilti Foundation has supported and accompanied Goddio’s research in Egypt – a fruitful partnership for both sides.

Franck Goddio was born in Casablanca in 1947. At the age of five he returned together with his mother and sister to France, his home country. He developed his interest in history and archaeology during his time at school. He had his first taste of archaeology during the school holidays, when he carried out his own excavations to dig for “treasures”. This enthusiasm turned into passion and the subject has fascinated him ever since – although initially his life was on a completely different track.

From finance expert to archaeologist
In 1972, after completing his studies in mathematics in Paris, he took up his first position as a UN government advisor in Indochina. Three years later, he was appointed as one of the French Foreign Ministry’s financial advisors to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He operated in the world of finance, moving between Riyadh, Paris, Frankfurt and Washington for six years.
At the age of 30 he began looking for a different, more meaningful challenge. He devoted a one-year sabbatical entirely to archaeology and soon detected a gap in research: practically no university or private institute was engaging in systematic and scientifically sound research into sunken antiquities in the ocean. But this is exactly where one would expect to find evidence of human history - and in virtually the same condition as when it disappeared. Goddio travelled across the globe for one-and-a-half years, talking to scientists, divers and university officials. His area of special interest was Egypt, particularly the region surrounding Alexandria and the Bay of Aboukir. He soon assumed that the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopous must lie near there; both cities had great importance before the founding of Alexandria and there had been no trace of either for more than 1,000 years.
In the mid 1980’s Goddio founded the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) in Paris – the future centre and backbone for his activities. In 1996, the Hilti Foundation supported Goddio’s first excavation in Alexandria’s Portus Magnus. The exploration was successful and marked the beginning of the partnership with the Foundation, which has endured for more than 20 years.


Challenging Working Conditions
Together with the Egyptian Administration of Antiquities, Goddio’s institute organises between one or two archaeological excavations each year. Each excavation team includes some 50 women and men – working both on the research ship “Princess Duda” and in the workshops on shore. The team includes archaeologists, divers, restorers, technicians and photographers – and of course the members of the “Princess Duda” crew. The space on board is limited and demands a high degree of discipline, tolerance and end-to-end logistics from the entire team. Every member has his or her clearly defined position, tasks and responsibilities. There are five to six weeks of concentrated work with no shore leave.


The time for working underwater is limited. The poor visibility, due to both the current and the nearby industrial wastewater, means work is constrained to just a few weeks per year. As a result, each day must be optimally planned and deployment of the divers must be structured as efficiently as possible. Time is precious.

Up to four teams of divers work in tandem at various locations, supported by a dinghy equipped with a generator needed to operate the underwater extractors for removing sand and sediment. Often two to three metres of sandy and muddy or even hard material must be removed before the archaeologists can uncover walls or individual artefacts.


Documentation and Restoration
Each find and discovery made at the bottom of the sea is carefully measured and immediatelay recorded in a detailed overall map. Over the years, this has resulted in the creation of an increasingly clear picture that is becoming more and more comprehensive and valuable with each new dive and each new detail found.
The restorers on board the “Princess Duda” play a crucial role - they examine, clean and undertake the first important conservation measures - improper handling could destroy the finds. Being immersed in saltwater for more than two thousand years leaves its marks and the sudden removal of water could lead to destruction of the artefacts. The finds are therefore first desalinated in freshwater and then, depending on the respective material, treated with chemical substances to preserve them for future generations.


For example, to make the stone statues of the royal couple of Thonis-Heracleion look as they did standing in front of the temple more than two thousand years ago, the fragments are strapped onto specially built carriages to enable them to be put back together while in a horizontal position. First, the cracks in the stone are filled with resin and granite powder. In a second step, dowels and stainless steel pins are inserted into holes drilled into various parts of the figures - according to exact measurements. Lastly, the giants are fitted with an individually adjusted steel corset for their back section, needed both to move them into an upright position and to stabilise them.
After thousands of years in their soggy grave, the pharaoh and his queen are finally returned to their upright position. This undertaking is accomplished with the help of a crane. First, the queen is slowly raised, and then the pharaoh. Finally, they stand side by side again. Goddio watches silently, and only after both figures are safely standing upright, does the scientist speak: “This here”, he says with a sweeping arm movement, “is the true magic of Egypt”.

Publication and Mediation
At the turn of the century, these remarkable research results prompted Franck Goddio and the Hilti Foundation to search for a scientific partner. The School of Archaeology at Oxford University turned out to be not only a congenial partner that embraced the idea of cooperating with great openness, but also an associate interested in expanding its own spectrum of courses by founding an institute in the field of underwater archaeology. The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA) began its operations in 2003 and currently oversees the scholarly publication of Franck Goddio’s excavation results. The Hilti Foundation is not only responsible for funding the Institute’s operations, but also awards two annual doctoral scholarships for young archaeologists who devote themselves especially to underwater archaeology and who regularly take part in excavations in Egypt. Furthermore, the Institute organises international seminars on diverse underwater archaeological topics. Since 2009, Franck Goddio has been a Senior Visiting Lecturer at the School of Archaeology in Oxford, reporting regularly about his newest findings.
“We had no idea such a plethora of first-class findings would be located at the bottom of the sea”, recalls Sir Barry Cunliffe, Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology. Together with his colleagues Professor Roland R.R. Smith and Professor Andrew Wilson, Cunliffe played a major part in establishing this partnership.
“For Franck Goddio, land is in sight wherever there is water”, says Damian Robinson, head of the OCMA since 2007. And it is precisely this ability that is essential for underwater archaeologists to be successful.
In addition to providing regular scientific publications for professionals, the results of Franck Goddio’s archaeological work have also been available to wider audiences since 2006. More than two million visitors have seen his first exhibition “Sunken Cities” in Berlin, Paris, Turin, Milan, as well as in Japan and in the USA. Since 2015, the exhibition “Osiris. Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” has been on display at various venues in Europe and will be presented in the USA in 2018.

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