Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is one of biggest exhibitions on at the British Museum in 2016. Meet the man whose passion for underwater archaeology has led to these remarkable discoveries
Franck Goddio started life as an economic advisor but later gave in to his passion for underwater archaeology and in 1985 set up the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM – Institut Européen d’archéologie Sous-Marine), a not-forprofit organisation. e is also the founder of the Far Eastern Foundation for Nautical Archaeology (FEFNA) in the Philippines, a co-founder of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA), and was recently appointed Senior Visiting Lecturer by the Oxford University School of Archaeology. Matilda Hickson caught up with this extremely busy man just before his new exhibition, Sunken Cities, opened at the British Museum on 19 May 2016.
How did a man who graduated in mathematics and statistics, and then went on to be a financial advisor, become an underwater archaeologist?
It was a passion I’d had since I was a child. I loved reading history and during the vacations I was doing archaeological work, as when you were 15 or 16 you were allowed to work on an excavation as part of the team. Then my studies and work led me in another direction but after ten years of being an economic advisor I decided to take a sabbatical year and did some things that I’d had in mind for a long time. I did a study around the world of underwater archaeology and I was quite surprised at what I found out.
After a year of travelling and meeting people (archaeologists, institutions, universities and the Department for Archaeology in France, for example), I saw that there was really a need for a kind of private institute which could conduct archaeological work on a long-term basis with different countries.
The work could be based on historical problems of research and this new institution could do the surveys, the historical works, the restoration, the studies – nothing like this existed at that time. There were some groups, funded by universities or countries, but there was no private group doing underwater archaeological work. There were a lot of treasure hunters, but these were not my concern – I wanted to do archaeological work. So I decided there was something to do and so I set it up!
And you wanted to pursue underwater archaeology rather than land excavations?
Absolutely. I love the sea, I am a sailor and in my family there is a history of this - my grandfather was a known sailor in the 1930s and invented the modern catamaran. So my focus was the sea, because on land you have many groups working and there was not a need for such an organisation. But this was missing for underwater archaeology.
Tell us a little about your work in the Philippines.
My approach was to do long-term historical research and that is what we decided to do in 1985, together with the National Museum of the Philippines. The Philippines is an archipelago of 6-7,000 islands and their history is one of maritime trade and routes. So we decided to do historical research on the trade routes and illustrate their history and learn more about the history of the Philippines, through finding shipwrecks from different eras, excavating them and publishing them.
This is why we are still doing this project, after nearly 30 years. In that time we have excavated 13 shipwrecks in Philippine waters, Junks from the 11th century to the 16th centuries, Spanish Galleons from the 16th - 18th centuries, (mainly 16th and 17th centuries). Then the Philippines became a world trade route in the 18th century, through the East India Company; we have wrecks dating from that period too. We found junks from the 11th - 16th centuries and are now focusing on an earlier period and surveying a 9th and 10th century Junk.
Sometimes the shipwrecks are quite modest, sometimes they are very impressive; some are in shallow water and some in very deep water. One of the shipwrecks is the San Diego, a galleon which sank during an historic event in anuary , which fits historically with the first utch to come to the hilippines. So as a shipwreck it might be the one with the most historical importance to the Philippines, the most important ship for the Philippines’ history, as the fate of the Philippines may have been decided during the battle in which it was involved.
What started your interest in Egypt and this project?
During my world archaeological study, I was invited by Jacques Dumas to Egypt in 1984. He had just discovered Napoleon’s flagship, the rient, which sank on st August 1798 during the battle of the Nile. And because Dumas was one of the few people undertaking serious work in the field of underwater archaeology at that time, I wanted to meet him.
So I went to Egypt in July and met umas and did my first archaeological dive on the Orient. During that trip archaeologists from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities mentioned to me that at the beginning of the 20th century theories had been put forward about the missing ancient cities of Thonis, Heracleion and Canopus. These cities had been situated along the Egyptian coast in antiquity but they have never been discovered from excavations on land, so they might be underwater.
I felt it would be worth conducting a large project there, as well as a search for the Portus Magnus of Alexandria, which for centuries was the biggest port in the Mediterranean Sea. So I proposed to the Supreme Council that we should try to locate the three city sites, map them and then, once the full topography of those sites was established, to start excavating them, and then to attempt to expand the project to include the Portus Magnus maritime trade routes in the area. They agreed to my proposal and we started the project in 1992.
Have you had any problems for the excavations with the recent political situation in Egypt?
We are continuing as normal. We run one or two work sessions a year, 45 days on site, depending on the work there is to do, and sometimes restoring artefacts or studying those from the previous year’s excavations. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed [with the number of objects] that we have to skip one excavation session in order to catch up with restoration and study, but we have had no political problems whatsoever in Alexandria or Abukir Bay.
We have to go slowly, to ensure we publish everything (which we are doing with Oxford University) and we need time
I saw that there was really a need because something was lacking. A need for a kind of private institute which could conduct archaeological work on a long-term basis with different countries
to study and write. If you don’t publish regularly, then information is lost and it is e tremely di cult afterwards when you see an artefact and you don’t know exactly where it is from, as it can be extremely misleading when you study it.
How did it feel to discover the sites of the lost cities?
It is exciting, but it is also a long, gradual process. Of course when we discovered the Heracleion site, which was a vast area of archaeological remains, I was sure it must be a city because it was so vast and covered such a wide area that I thought it could not just be one monument. And when we started excavating and discovered the terminus of the Temple and then very, very soon after we found the shrine of the temple, indicating that we were in the city of Heracleion, it was an extremely exciting time.
Are there many monumental buildings left?
The city of Heracleion covers an area of about 3.5 square km, and we have so far identified five different sanctuaries, so would think that we have identified many of the main sanctuaries, although one is still missing. I can guess where it may be but we still have not identified it. ou have to understand that if you compare the city with something like Pompeii, the site of Heracleion is twice the size of Pompeii, and it is underwater and covered in sediment. Pompeii has been excavated since the 18th century, so we will need several centuries to excavate Heracleion fully; we haven’t touched more than a tiny amount, probably 5%, so far. So we will be digging there for many centuries - I have asked the Supreme Council for three centuries to excavate there!
What are the biggest challenges when working at Abukir Bay?
To begin with, we only had historical text describing the area, so we had to make a critical study of this and we didn’t have any marks which would indicate on land where the cities would be. We had no clue whatsoever where they could be located except that we had some measurements of distance from one to another in some ancient texts and some of the distances were given from Alexandria. So we knew that if they were submerged underwater, then they would be west of the bay of Abukir not east. This was a vast area to survey, so this was our biggest challenge.
Then when we started to excavate, another challenge was that the visibility is extremely poor, sometimes just 30 cm. So when you are excavating, it does hamper the work, but we are getting used to that. And as a matter of fact, it seems that the water is becoming clearer and clearer every year. In fact, for this year, we had five days when the visibility was metres which was a kind of paradise! But it is still a challenge. The other challenge of course is the sea conditions. We excavate in the morning and very often, by the afternoon, what you excavated in the morning is already covered again because of the swell, the waves. So you have to record in situ, permanently, everything you are doing, otherwise you will lose all the work you have done, if you do not record all the data straight away. So the excavators are permanently photographing, measuring, recording as they go along. ou cannot do the excavating and then at the end of the day say, ‘OK, let’s do the drawing, let’s take the measurements’, as it has all gone.
When do you excavate each year?
We have two main windows to excavate, in spring-time, April and May, which is perfect, and also in September/ October. During the winter there is too much swell and there are storms which are no good and during the summer the water is too hot and the visibility sometimes goes down to zero. And during August you also have the northern winds coming from Greece and it can be quite hot.
Do you work between excavation seasons?
It is a permanent process. All of the artefacts that are brought on board stay on board until the end of the season, when they are accompanied by the Inspector to the museum in Alexandria where we have a warehouse. We have a restorer on board who is taking care of objects as they arrive. And then on land
we have a laboratory in the maritime museum, where work is done right through the year.
Do you have a favourite object that has been found?
That is very di cult to answer would say my favourite object would be the stele of Thonis-Heracleion, the black diorite stele, 2 metres high, which was absolutely intact - since the 18th century it has been very rare for such a stele to be discovered in Egypt. It is beautiful and furthermore it is perfectly readable, with nothing missing, and it does solve a two-thousand-year-old enigma. It is the kind of object that is a dream for an archaeologist to find.
[The intact stele is inscribed with the decree of a s and was commissioned by Nectanebos I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the Stele of Naukratis in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The place where it was to be situated is clearly named: Thonis-Heracleion].
our new e hibition, Sunken Cities, is starting in May at the British Museum. How much input did you have into the objects for the exhibition?
I chose all the objects myself. Of the 293 artefacts that I am contributing to the exhibition, 250 are from our excavations, and I have asked for 43 objects which are masterpieces from Egypt and most of them are leaving gypt for the first time. The British Museum is also contributing artefacts from their collection from the city of Naukratis, a city linked with the city of Thonis-Heracleion by the Canopic branch of the Nile and which was excavated at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.
Did the exhibition take a long time to organise?
es, it was a big process. t was also a big process to plan, to create the catalogue, to produce the text, it took months and months but I think the results will be outstanding.
Do you think you are doing your dream job?
es t is a pleasure every day. hether you are working on site or you are working on the electronic maps, or you are writing, or correcting proofs, or preparing the project plan for the coming year, it is always a pleasure. It is a job which has many aspects: you have the electronic work, the excavation, the pleasure of excavating underwater and also the study of the artefacts, publishing them, making movies, taking underwater photographs, scientific research, organising exhibitions, giving lectures, delivering training courses to train new archaeologists and lecturers for the [Oxford] Centre of Maritime Archaeology all these are different pleasures but they make life very nice.
What do you think your greatest achievement has been?
In Egypt it was to locate and map the Portus Magnus, locate and identify the city of Thonis (which is on the same site as the city of Heracleion) and the city of Canopus, and we are going much deeper and building historical aspects which were not known beforehand, so we are adding to history. Because it is sometimes good to prove whether what was known to history was true or not, but it is even better to add things that were not known to history.
And for our work in the Far East [the Philippines], this is a long-term project that we started with the National Museum 30 years ago, so it is a very long process, but we are putting missing pieces together and altogether we have made a very considerable achievement there too.
Can you tell us something that we don’t know about you?
Every morning when I wake up it is a pleasure! Sometimes this is not always the case, even when you have fascinating work, there may be grey aspects to your job. But I don’t have any of those. Even when am negotiating di cult matters, it is a pleasure because people are asking me to do things which are fantastic.
What is next? Do you have any new projects?
My current projects will keep me busy for the next hundred years! But I also have a project in Cuba which I have been pursuing since 1998.
Franck with the stele of Thonis-Heracleion, found at Abukir Bay, Egypt
Raising the stele of Thonis-Heracleion
Above: At work in the Philippines. On board the submersible, the pilot and Franck study the naval architecture of the remains of the British Honourable East India Company ship, Royal Captain. The parts are numbered, using labels made from a special...