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Exhibit of undersea Egyptian treasures at St. Louis Art Museum is 'big in every way'

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In the main sculpture hall of the St. Louis Art Museum, colossal statues of an ancient pharaoh, a queen and a fertility god keep watch over the membership and information desk.

Their journey to St. Louis was long and complicated, perhaps the least dramatic stretch of which was spent in crates on a cargo plane that flew them here from across the ocean.

Until their discovery about 20 years ago, they had spent the last 1,200 or so years about 30 feet under the Mediterranean Sea.

Now, they are part of an exhibit: “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds.” The $4 million show opens Sunday at the museum, marking the exhibit’s first stop in the United States after touring London, Paris and Zurich.

It’s St. Louis’ most significant exhibition of ancient Egyptian art in decades and will be on view through Sept. 9. The artifacts will then travel America.

“This is big in every way,” says Brent Benjamin, the director of the museum, at a media preview of the exhibit Wednesday. “This is large, heavy, expensive and complicated.”

It’s even big for Egypt.

“This exhibit showcases one of the greatest finds in the history of underwater archaeology,” says Khaled El-Anany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities.

Colossal statues installed at the St. Louis Art Museum

Lukas Merz, with the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, works the pulley to lift a 12,000-pound statue of an Egyptian pharaoh into an upright position on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Sculpture Hall at the St. Louis Art Museum. The Sunken Cities exhibit, which features relics from two ancient underwater cities at the mouth of the River Nile, is currently being installed. Two other colossi statues, that of an Egyptian queen and of the Egyptian god, Hapy, will ultimately be added and in place for the March 25th opening.

Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

During the preview, he and about two dozen representatives from Egypt’s media, Ministry of Antiquities and Supreme Council of Antiquities filed through the seven gallery rooms in the East Building, snapping photos and taking in the displays. Along for the tour was Franck Goddio, the underwater archaeologist who found and recovered the items.

The rooms contain more than 250 sculptures, earrings, ceremonial ladles, miniature boats and a stone structure called the Naos of the Decades, one of the oldest known astrological calendars. They also house items borrowed from museums in Cairo and Alexandria that have never been seen in America.

The colossal statues stand in the sculpture hall because they wouldn’t fit under the East Building’s 16-foot ceilings. The museum hired a structural engineer to confirm that, indeed, the hall could handle the combined 30,600-pound weight of the statues.

Forgotten cities

The physical work and the paperwork of getting the items here is finished. Now comes the task of telling their stories.

Visitors might expect to see pyramids and mummies in this exhibition, but there are none.

“This is the antithesis of that,” warns Lisa Çakmak, the St. Louis Art Museum’s associate curator of ancient art, who says she was blown away when she saw the exhibit at the British Museum in London in 2016. She’s the co-curator of “Sunken Cities” and adapted it for American audiences and the museum’s space.

Video screens and enlarged photos augment the displays, and next to the objects discovered underwater are three wavy lines, the Egyptian hieroglyphic for water. Some items include pictures of what they looked like on the sea floor, some encrusted by barnacles, in water clouded by silt.

The sunken cities coming to the surface here are Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, which were largely forgotten after they sunk into the Mediterranean Sea 1,200 years ago after natural catastrophes including earthquakes and soil liquefaction. The cities are about four miles off today’s Egyptian coastline, near Alexandria.

Sunken Cities set to open

Brent Benjamin, the director of the St. Louis Art Museum, speaks before a media tour on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, for the new Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost World exhibit that will open March 25th until Sept. 9th. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Thonis, the city’s Egyptian name, and Heracleion, its Greek name, was once a major port of trade with the Greek world. Nearby Canopus drew pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean to its shrines.

In 1933, a Royal Air Force pilot spotted dark shadows under the water’s surface, hinting at something below. In 1996, underwater archaeologist Goddio and his team from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology started careful surveys of the area and began making their first discoveries in 2000.

New discoveries

Goddio, a Frenchman who made the career switch into underwater archaeology after working as an economic adviser for the United Nations and the French Foreign ministry, beamed as he walked through the St. Louis Art Museum galleries.

For this day, he had traded his diving suit for a traditional suit and tie, and he was thrilled to watch visitors make their own discoveries. He pointed out that the exhibit offers something for everyone: people interested in ancient history, kids who love adventure and discovery, technical types intrigued by the equipment used to find and track the treasures.

Sunken Cities The bust of the colossal statue of the god Hapy

The bust of the colossal statue of the god Hapy has been strapped with webbings before being cautiously raised out of the water of Aboukir Bay, Egypt. Photo by Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

His favorite object for its beauty is a statue of Arsinoe II, a queen depicted as the goddess Isis-Aphrodite. Her head is missing, but she wears a Greek-style drapery that is pulled back to reveal her idealized figure.

Goddio recalls the moment they pulled her from the sea, how the water darkened the stone and made her appear shiny and black.

“It was a magic moment,” he says. “This was the meeting place of ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian civilizations. Here you have the best of the best of the art, of meeting civilizations.”

His favorite discovery for its historical significance is a stele, or stone tablet, that describes some complicated tax rules but also confirms that Thonis and Heracleion were the same town and not two different towns as scholars had long thought.

Goddio’s finds also helped scholars answer questions about the Mysteries of Osiris, an annual water procession along the canals that commemorated the Egyptian myth of the murder and resurrection of the god Osiris. The exhibit delves deep into that mystery, including a wall-size photo of a 36-foot sycamore boat that was deliberately sunk along with other offerings during the processions.

The boat was too fragile to bring to the surface, but the giant mortar and pestle used to crush minerals for rituals and ladles used for pouring holy Nile water are on display.

Goddio, now 70, expects many more magical moments in his career. But the work is not finished: He suspects his team has uncovered a mere 5 percent of the submerged treasures.

He points out that archaeologists have been working at the much smaller city of Pompeii since the 1870s. He jokes that he’s asked for two or three more centuries.

“Every year when we go back with my team, we think, it cannot be as good as this last mission,” he says. “And every time we find something, we think it’s greater than the last time.”

Editor's note: a previous version of this story had the incorrect origins of the city names Thonis and Heracleion.

Valerie Schremp Hahn is a features writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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