Precious donations made of Attic imported ceramics were deposited for funerary purpose by the Greek settlers in Thonis-Heracleion. End of 5th, beginning of 4th century BC. Photo: Christoph Gerigk ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation
CNN  — 

Archaeological “treasures,” including Greek ceramics and 2,400-year-old wicker baskets filled with fruit, have been discovered at the site of the ancient sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion, off Egypt’s coast.

Thonis-Heracleion was Egypt’s largest Mediterranean port before Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331 BCE.

A team from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, have been studying the area for years. Their 2021 mission, conducted in close cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Egypt, revealed “extremely interesting results” at the site of Thonis-Heracleion in the Bay of Aboukir, IEASM said in a statement last month.

Along the north-east entrance canal of the submerged city the team found the remains of a large tumulus – a Greek funerary area. It was “covered with sumptuous funerary offerings” dating back to the beginning of the fourth century BCE, IEASM said.

The tumulus is about 60 meters (197 feet) long and eight meters (26 feet) wide, and “looks like a kind of island surrounded by channels,” IEASM added.

“Everywhere we found evidence of burned material,” said Goddio, as quoted in the IEASM statement. “Spectacular ceremonies must have taken place there. The place must have been sealed for hundreds of years as we have found no objects from later than the early fourth century BCE, even though the city lived on for several hundred years after that.”

Huge blocks of the destroyed temple of Amun in Thonis-Heracleion fell on top of a galley, which was moored alongside, and sank it. Second century BCE. Photo: Christoph Gerigk ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Among the offerings, which included “imported luxury Greek ceramics,” archaeologists made an even more astonishing discovery – wicker baskets that were still filled with grape seeds and doum fruit – the fruit of an African palm tree, which is often found in tombs, according to IEASM.

“They have lain untouched underwater (for) 2,400 years, maybe because they were once placed within an underground room or were buried soon after being offered,” IEASM said.

The discovery “beautifully illustrates the presence of Greek merchants and mercenaries who lived in Thonis-Heracleion, the city that controlled the entrance to Egypt at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile,” IEASM said.

Greeks were allowed to settle in the city during the late Pharaonic period and built their own sanctuaries close to the massive temple of Amun.

However, researchers said that several earthquakes followed by tidal waves led to a 110-square-kilometer portion of the Nile delta collapsing under the sea, taking with it the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. IEASM “rediscovered” Thonis-Heracleion in 2000 and Canopus in 1999.

The god Bes was considered to be the protector of people in their daily life. He was also worshiped as the protector of pregnant women. Gold, 5th to 4th century BCE, Thonis-Heracleion.  Photo: Christoph Gerigk ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

During their 2021 mission, in another area of the city, Goddio and his team found submerged beneath the waters a Ptolemaic galley, which sank after being hit by huge blocks from the temple of Amun, according to IEASM.

The galley was moored in the canal that flowed along the south face of the temple when the building was destroyed during a “cataclysmic event” in the second century BCE, according to IEASM.

Falling blocks from the temple protected the sunken galley by pinning it to the bottom of the canal, which was then filled with debris. Archaeologists were able to detect the galley by using “a cutting-edge prototype sub-bottom profiler,” IEASM said. This advanced technology is able to determine physical properties of the sea floor and define geological information a few meters below the sea floor.

“The finds of fast galleys from this period remain extremely rare,” Goddio explained. “The only other example to date being the Punic Marsala Ship (235 BCE). Before this discovery, Hellenistic ships of this type were completely unknown to archaeologists.”

All featured photography by Christoph Gerigk.