Diving into History: Franck Goddio Is Famous for the Discovery of Cleopatra's Palace off the Coast of Egypt. as a Selection of His Finds Goes on Show for the First Time in the Newly Opened National Museum of Alexandria, Miranda Haines Speaks to the Ambassador for Marine Archaeology about His Obsession with Unlocking the Secrets of the Past

Article excerpt

Smiling and tanned, a lean Franck Goddio formally beckons me into his presidential quarters in Paris's 7th arrondissement. There are few clues that this is the home of the world's most famous living marine explorer; there are no personal objets d'art, no artefacts, maps, family photographs or models of ships. It's clear that beyond his attempts to publicise his discoveries and archaeology in general, Goddio is an extremely private person.

Goddio is best known for discovering and excavating the lost cities of Heracleion and Canopus, as well as what is believed to be Cleopatra's royal quarters at Alexandria, which lie submerged beneath the modern bay of Aboukir. He has also excavated seven Chinese junks dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries, two ships from the East India Company and two 17th-century Spanish galleons.

His most recent treasures, unearthed this January from the site of the sunken city of Heracleion, include ritual vases, cult offerings, busts and bronze statues.

As founder of the European institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), a non-profit, privately funded organisation, Goddio is working on six excavation projects exclusively with the governments and military of Cuba, the Philippines, France and Egypt. His organisation gives him the sort of freedom and respectability of which most others in his field can only dream.

And now he's intent on bringing his findings out into the open, in an exciting, accessible way, so that the general public can share his passion and follow his adventures. This has led to the publication of a flurry of colourful books on his discoveries and a new set of encyclopaedias. "I saw that most books on archaeology were either extremely basic or academic," he says. "So we thought, why not do books that are both scientific and popular?"

He's obviously been very pleased by the books' remarkable success--many of them have quickly sold out. "The public is very receptive to underwater archaeology and the more interest we can generate, the more funding the archaeologists will get. Look at the space conquest with Kennedy--they were pouring millions of dollars into the mission because of the public interest. If we stay in our little scientific world, no-one will care about our work. And why should they?"

Goddio obviously cares very deeply about marine archaeology, speaking with great earnestness and gravitas on the subject. So when I ask for a little personal history, he looks taken aback. It's with some difficulty or reluctance that he remembers his youth.

"My childhood? I've forgotten my childhood," he jokes with French aplomb. With a little persuasion, however, he begins to open up. "I was born in Morocco and I was always fond of history. I was fanatical about archaeology. Every holiday I would go and see all the sites. But I also loved the sea and to sail. I had a grandfather who was a great sailor and he accomplished lots of expeditions. He built the first catamaran in 1936, wrote several books and did many expeditions. He died at sea during an adventure to demonstrate that you could circumnavigate the Pacific by raft in 1958."

Towards the end of the 1960s, Goddio came to live and study in Paris, attending les Grands Ecoles, the French equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge universities. There he specialised in economics, which led to work as a consultant for the French government and a UN development agency. "I was working in New York and then deployed to the Far East--Bangkok, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia," he says. "Then I was in Saudi Arabia for seven years as advisor to the kingdom."

How, I ask, does his previous life as an economist help the explorer of today? "I was good at statistics, which does help me a lot now because I have developed a statistical programme for my underwater surveys," he replies.

However, economics wasn't offering him the personal fulfilment that he craved. "When I came back from Saudi Arabia in 1985, I wanted to do something totally new," he says. …