In the heart of Bloomsbury, and just footsteps from The Montague on the Gardens, lies London’s internationally renowned cultural institution, the British Museum. With one of the world’s largest collection of artefacts, the museum is known for its focus on human history, culture and the arts. Now the museum is revealing the extraordinary story of the two lost cities of ancient Egypt that have been submerged under the sea for over a thousand years. We speak to Egyptologist and Project Curator of the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds, Daniela Rosenow, about this remarkable showcase.
What was involved in putting this exhibition together?
‘The British Museum was approached by the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, who thought the museum would be an excellent venue for showcasing the artefacts. Franck Goddio, the director and excavator, had already chosen the objects to be displayed, which were an extremely generous loan from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. We supplemented this selection with material from our own British Museum collection. We then developed the narrative and design of sunken cities and started writing the catalogue and developing the audio guide and digital media. We worked closely with Franck Goddio and his team, as well as with the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology.”
What do you find most exciting about the exhibition?
“Sunken cities looks at the intercultural exchange between Egypt and Greece from the 7th to the 1st century BC. It tells stories of migration, power, politics, religious beliefs and the exchange of not only goods but also ideas. We show that Egypt was not an isolated civilisation but an outward looking, influential and inclusive society. We focus on the artistic, cultural, religious and economic intermingling between two different cultures. Very often people assume that when two cultures mix the essence of each gets diluted and as a result they weaken; our exhibition shows the opposite. In the present day the eyes of the world too often have to focus on conflict and separation, but Sunken Cities shows the interaction, co-existence, dialogue and tolerance between different cultures. For me, this message is the most exciting aspect of the exhibition.”
Are there any objects you find particularly intriguing?
“My favourite object is the statue of the Ptolemaic queen Arsinoe II. After her death she was deified as the Graeco-Egyptian goddess Isis-Aphrodite and worshipped by Egyptians and Greeks alike. Her sculpture is the epitome of the fusion of Greek and Egyptian aesthetics, and a true masterpiece.”
Were you surprised by any of the discoveries you made?
“I wouldn’t call it surprised but rather stunned – each day, again and again – by the beauty of some of the objects. The artefacts are just so amazing. I felt it was a great privilege to have been co-curating such an exhibition.”
What can people expect from their visit?
“They can expect to be amazed. The exhibition has so many elements that people will be attracted by: the underwater archaeology, the message of cultural exchange, the wide range of artefacts from colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery, and even an animal mummy, not to forget the fact that these objects have never been displayed in the UK before and some of them had never left Egypt.”
What revelations do you think the exhibition presents to visitors?
“I hope it presents the message that Egypt was not this odd little isolated country that didn’t interact with its neighbours, and that people from two different cultures – more than 2,000 years ago – managed to live peacefully alongside each other, while working together, worshiping their gods alongside each other, intermarrying and creating stunning hybrid art. I’m sure everyone will have a different view of Ancient Egypt after seeing the exhibition.”
Supported by BP.
Organised with the Hilti Foundation and Institut Europén d’Archéologie Sous-Marine.
Image credits: Cover photo of the Colossal statue of god Hapy, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. A diver brings to light an Osiris-Canopus found at the site of Canopus Aboukir Bay. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. Pectoral in gold, lapis lazuli and glass paste, found in Tanis in the royal tomb of the Pharaoh Sheshonk II (~ 890 BC), Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. Colossal statue of god Hapy, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. Stele of Thonis-Heracleion, Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.