Alexandria below the Waves: Russell Chamberlin Describes the Revelations of a Recent Conference on the Archaeology of Cleopatra's Alexandria

By Chamberlin, Russell | History Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview
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Alexandria below the Waves: Russell Chamberlin Describes the Revelations of a Recent Conference on the Archaeology of Cleopatra's Alexandria


Chamberlin, Russell, History Today


IN 1998 FRANCK GODDIO, the French maritime archaeologist electrified the world with stunning underwater photographs of the sunken Royal City of Alexandria. Even veteran archaeologists were moved. Professor Barry Cunliffe of Oxford's School of Archaeology described his sense of excitement as, standing on the deck of Goddio's research vessel in Alexandria harbour he watched as the ship's winch hauled up a net in which rested the marble head of the Nile god, brought into the sunlight for the first time in 2,000 years.

The dramatic discoveries drew popular, as well as academic, attention to Ptolemaic Alexandria. Following a lecture by Goddio, in June 2003, Oxford's School of Archaeology founded the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology (OCMA). The Centre works closely with Goddio's own Institut Europeen d'Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) analysing the discoveries, but also placing them in a wider context. In December 2004 it held its first international conference on 'The Archaeology of Ancient Alexandria'.

Goddio's photographs had acted as a kind of searchlight lighting up the vanished city. But searchlights can dazzle as well as illuminate and Goddio's presentation rather put in the shade the work of others at Alexandria. The conference gave an overview of the many initiatives that have been taking place there over the decades. For example, a Polish team has been working in Alexandria since 1960 and provided architectural evidence of intellectual activity in the shape of a series of lecture halls--long narrow ovals with benches and a podium whence ideas were disseminated.

OCMA's brief includes a wide range of subject areas, from modern technology to ancient mythology and history. This approach accommodates, at one extreme, discussions on art history and religion, and at the other, geophysical surveys of the sub-bottom strata of the harbours. Why did the Ptolemaic city disappear beneath the waves? In 1998 Goddio had given some clue as to what happened: '90 per cent of the artefacts were found left on the pavement, indicating that the population was overwhelmed by a surprise event --perhaps a sudden earthquake followed by a tidal wave'. Subsequently, his meticulous dating of the surviving wooden structures of the submerged harbour showed how the port was gradually submerged. But the theory of a final, sudden, catastrophe received confirmation when an American-Italian team provided geological evidence of the effects of the tsunami of AD 365.

There was another possible cause: the weight of the vast stone structures of the Graeco-Roman city, built on clay, simply punching their way down over the centuries.

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