Archaeologists In Egypt Have Uncovered A Shipwreck That May Unravel A 2,500-Year-Old Mystery

In 2000 the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology uncovered the remains of an ancient city off the coast of Egypt that, incredibly, had lain submerged beneath the waves for over 1,000 years. Since then, divers have excavated a host of age-old relics at the site – including fascinating shipwrecks. But in March 2019 the world discovered that the institute had found a wreck unlike any seen before. In fact, the only previous evidence that the hulk existed was one ancient historian’s description. And many people thought that he was lying – until now.

It’s pretty astonishing what some of humanity’s earliest civilizations were able to accomplish. For example, the ancient Egyptians and Greeks did not, of course, have access to the materials or knowledge that are at hand to us today. And yet between them those cultures built incredible structures, developed whole new technologies to improve farming and came up with ideas that have influenced much of philosophical and mathematical thought.

When you think of ancient Egypt, you probably picture the pyramids. And even today, experts are baffled by how those people from the past were capable of building on such a massive scale. There are, however, less grand but equally important innovations that came from this highly successful society. For instance, sand often got into food back then, and this led the Egyptians to conceive toothpaste and toothbrushes.

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Ancient Egyptian dental practices were therefore advanced compared to those of other cultures of the time, and yet other areas of Egyptian medicine actually progressed even more quickly. For example, although a belief in magic governed many treatments, the Egyptians nonetheless displayed extensive knowledge of anatomy. They also used honey in their medicines, and the sweet substance has since been proven to have anti-bacterial properties.

Meanwhile, the success of Egyptian irrigation methods meant that they were also applied by both the Greek and Roman civilizations. Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras would also travel to Egypt to learn from priests and scholars there. And math in the Nile Delta culture was implemented in everything from engineering and medicine to taxation and record-keeping.

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Other Egyptian innovations that spread to Greece and the rest of the world included both the first paper and the first black ink. Paper, for its part, was made from the papyrus plant, while early inks came from beeswax, soot and vegetable gum. Different minerals were added to the inks to produce different colors, while pens were created from reeds with split ends. And, naturally, these inventions led to advances in writing and recording.

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The civilizations of ancient Egypt and Greece were closely related in other respects, too. And when Alexander the Great expanded his empire into Egypt, he established the city of Alexandria. This early metropolis would in turn become the Egyptian capital, and yet its language and culture were to remain Greek. But this was in fact true more generally of the Ptolemaic Dynasty – who stayed in the capital and were the last independent rulers of Egypt. The members of this dynasty were originally Greek, and they remained isolated even while living in and ruling Egypt.

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Trade between Egypt and Greece first opened up between 685 and 525 B.C., and the ancient Greeks took ideas from their Nile Delta-based counterparts and expanded upon them. For example, the Greeks began to put aside old supernatural accounts of the world around us in the belief that they could instead rationally explain the universe. Yes, Greek thought lay the foundations for the notion that everything is subject to the laws of nature.

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In ancient Greece, observation – as the basis for science – was highly valued. Then as time went on, the people of this civilization began to prioritize deductive reasoning – a knowledge-forming process based more purely on thought. Greek mathematics, meanwhile, initially advanced faster, built as it was upon Egyptian work. And as Alexander the Great conquered parts of Asia, Babylonian influence contributed to Greek astronomy.

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Indeed, astronomy and mathematics are arguably the areas in which the Greeks flourished most. Other ideas even comprised an early theory of evolution centuries before Charles Darwin. And key figures in ancient Greece included Pythagoras – the thinker who realized how to calculate the length of one side of a triangle from the lengths of the other two sides.

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Another important figure was the philosopher Aristotle. In fact, it was he who pioneered the systems of logic and deductive reasoning that would remain prominent for thousands of years. And in testament to Aristotle’s contribution, it is only relatively recently in history that his work has been challenged. Plato, too, had a similarly lasting influence. Indeed, during medieval times scholars were discouraged from questioning these two giants of antiquity, which partly explains their legacy.

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Yet another area pioneered by the Greeks was historical study. And one Greek individual did more than many others to develop the concept of the historian. His name was Herodotus – yet he has always been a controversial figure. The Roman writer Cicero called Herodotus “The Father of History,” but others have referred to him as “The Father of Lies.”

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Herodotus was born around 484 B.C.; and while we know only limited information about his early life, he seems to have come from what is now Turkey. His family were certainly wealthy enough to give him the highest quality education. And the fact that Herodotus was able to travel so much indicates that he had money of his own as an adult. Furthermore, his first-hand descriptions of various battles suggest that he was once a foot soldier in the army.

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One thing we do know is that during his many travels through Europe, Asia and Africa, Herodotus wrote down what he saw. His accounts cover details of everything from everyday life to major historical events – such as the Battle of Marathon. And he also described the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The problem, though, is that Herodotus sometimes passed off the stories of others as his own and was prone to speculation.

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For example, Herodotus has come under flak for exaggerating his depiction of the walls of Babylon. He said, you see, that they had 100 gates; but strong archaeological clues and other accounts from the past make it clear that there were only eight. So it seems that Herodotus might not have visited the ancient wonder despite his claims. He may instead have chosen to create an exciting narrative based on what others had said.

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Indeed, some believe that Herodotus wanted to make his account of Babylon sound like Homer’s portrayal of Thebes in Egypt. He was a great fan of the Greek poet, after all, and tried to structure his book Histories in a similar way to Homer’s work. However, he was nevertheless a critical enough historian to question the veracity of the narrative that Homer had constructed in The Iliad. And in contrast to other authors of his era, Herodotus did not credit his writings as having divine origin.

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It may in fact at least partly be Herodotus’ love of a good narrative that makes his work so popular. The thrilling events and characters peppering his book Histories certainly draw the reader in and keep them engaged. In any case, Herodotus appears to have had something of a high opinion of himself, with little regard for what others thought. Either way, though, he died at some point between 425 and 413 B.C., probably in Athens.

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One of Herodotus’ – understandably – disputed claims is that he had seen ants as big as foxes in Persia. And these ants, according to him, would scatter gold dust when excavating the ground to build their mounds. Other scholars were inevitably incredulous about the description. Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s that the French explorer Michel Peissel found evidence that it might not have been quite such a tall tale after all.

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In the Persian language, the word for “mountain ant” happens to be similar to the word for “marmot.” Now, there is a marmot in the Himalayas that is similar in size to a fox and that did indeed disperse gold dust. So Herodotus may not have been lying; the details could simply have been misconstrued during translation.

Another Herodotus claim that has attracted debate also comes from his aforementioned book Histories. In the account, he describes an encounter with a somewhat strange boat known as a “baris.” Specifically, the ancient historian alleges to have seen such vessels on the Nile, in Egypt, in the fifth century B.C. The problem is that until recently, there was no evidence that any such ship had ever sailed there. So, some people thought that it was just another of Herodotus’ fantastical stories.

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It has been nearly 2,500 years since Herodotus described the baris. That’s how long it has taken to find evidence to support his claims. For hundreds of years, scholars debated Herodotus’ description – and thus the boat’s existence – but had never been able draw a conclusion one way or the other. Now, however, the ancient submerged city of Thonis-Heracleion appears to offer the physical proof and provide a definitive answer.

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If asked to describe a famous city that sank to the bottom of the ocean, you might well think of Atlantis. The mythical place has occupied the popular imagination for hundreds of years; however, the story of Atlantis was actually dreamed up by Plato. Less well known but more in the realm of fact, meanwhile, is the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion. This is another place that was once described by Herodotus – but in this case by other contemporary figures as well.

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Strabo was a Greek geographer who lived hundreds of years after Herodotus. And like his historian counterpart, he witnessed Thonis-Heracleion, which was located at the mouth of the Nile’s Canopic branch in Egypt. Today, this branch of the Nile is almost entirely comprised of silt. But back then, directly to the west of Thonis-Heracleion sat the city of Canopus – itself also situated on the Nile Delta, where the river branches out as it approaches the Mediterranean Sea.

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The submerged ruins of Thonis-Heracleion were first spotted by a British air force commander who was flying over the water in 1933. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the first excavation, by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), was launched. And yet the initiative originally wasn’t even focused on the ancient city; rather, the archaeologists were on the hunt for sunken French ships that dated back to the late 1700s.

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Another important discovery then occurred in the early 2000s when divers uncovered a piece from an ancient statue. The fragment belonged to a giant figure of Hapi – ruler of the river and the Egyptian god of fertility. You see, the statue had once stood on a plinth, guarding the port of Thonis-Heracleion. And when the divers continued to investigate, they found more statues, as well as jewelry, pottery and other relics, from the long-lost city.

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Very little was actually known about the city of Thonis-Heracleion before it was rediscovered. Herodotus, however, did supply some descriptions. He claimed that a prodigious temple had been built to mark the spot where the mythological hero Hercules had first arrived in Egypt.

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Thonis-Heracleion predated Alexandria – which was established in 331 B.C. – and the former city was once a key port for ships traveling between Greece and Egypt. Indeed, its very name combines Egyptian and Greek words. And like modern-day Venice, it was a city threaded through with canals. At its center, meanwhile, was the temple to the supreme god Amun-Gereb – where Cleopatra was once crowned Queen of Egypt.

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But sadly, Thonis-Heracleion’s fortunes were not to last. Between the second century B.C. and the eighth century A.D., a succession of natural disasters struck the city. And with earthquakes, tsunamis and subsidence all playing their parts, the entire ancient metropolis eventually sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Indeed, as mentioned, it would not be seen directly again until 2000, when the French archaeologist Franck Goddio led the IEASM to Abu Qir bay, near the city of Alexandria.

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The excavations took place around 33 feet beneath the water’s surface and some four miles from the modern coast. First, though, the seven-by-nine-mile area needed to be mapped, and this took several years. Devices that resemble giant underwater vacuum cleaners were then used to remove sand and silt from the sunken ruins. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities supported the work of Goddio and his team.

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And it was actually Goddio himself who unraveled the mystery of the city’s name. Until that point, it remained uncertain whether or not Thonis and Heracleion had been two different settlements. In fact, though, they were indeed one and the same place – just with two names. The first moniker is Egyptian, whereas the second is Greek, with “Heracleion” deriving from “Hercules.”

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For their part, the ships that Herodotus described were constructed from acacia. He said, “The form is very like that of the Kyrenian lotus, and its sap is gum.” Acacia consists of a group of shrubs and trees found largely in Australia and Africa. The species are known for their distinctively shaped leaves, small flowers and multi-use bark. And several kinds of acacia yield valuable timber.

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According to Herodotus, the around 3.3-foot planks of acacia were laid “like bricks” during the building of the ships. And the vessels would then have been used to transport cargo. The author also described the baris boats thoroughly, taking 23 lines of his book to do so. Indeed, all told, it seems that he found this an interesting and noteworthy subject.

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It was in 450 B.C. that Herodotus watched a baris being built and took note – in no small detail. Once the planks were assembled, beams were placed over the top, and the seams were lined with papyrus. The mast was made from another piece of acacia, while papyrus was again used for the sails. Meanwhile, a hole in the keel allowed the rudder to pass through it.

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Back in the present day, Oxford University’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology has been circulating the IEASM’s discoveries. And in the watery ruins of Thonis-Heracleion, the latter organization has uncovered over 70 sunken seagoing vessels that were built between the eighth and second centuries B.C. Fascinatingly, too, the boat labeled “Ship 17” is made of acacia planks, just as Herodotus claimed. The planks even feature the same unique joining method evidence of which could previously only be found in Herodotus’ writing.

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Ship 17 is, however, actually larger than the type of vessel that Herodotus described, though it was built in a similar way. It would have been as much as 92 feet in length and featured a massive hull that was crescent-shaped. Today, well over two-thirds of Ship 17’s hull remains in one piece. And researchers have also been able to see the “internal ribs” that Herodotus referenced but which had previously been left to the imagination. What’s more, altogether, this boat is among the first extensive ancient Egyptian merchant vessels to have been uncovered – and the details of its construction are fascinating.

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The aforementioned “ribs” are tenons each over 6 feet in length, and they hold the planks as one with the help of a series of pegs. In fact, it is this design that makes the vessel so unique, since other ships used mortice and tenon joints to attach their planks together. Ship 17 is, though, almost identical to Herodotus’ description – notwithstanding its larger size. It may even have been built in the very same shipyard where the ancient historian once stood to watch baris ships being constructed.

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As for further key details about the boats, well, according to Herodotus, each one featured a door-shaped crate consisting of reed mats sown to tamarisk wood. Apparently, the crate rested to the fore of the baris ship and worked in combination with a stone, weighing about 57 pounds, that was placed behind the vessel. It’s said that together crate and stone would counterbalance each other and help the ship continue in a straight line.

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In its heyday, the baris would have been used for transporting salt, grain and other goods along the Nile. And when a given boat reached Thonis-Heracleion, its cargo was able to be exported to the wider world. The baris would then have carried imports from Persia and Greece back into Egypt. And when its days as a ship were done, the craft could have been repurposed as a floating jetty.

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Other vessels discovered at Thonis-Heracleion include a sycamore boat that would have been employed in an ancient ritual to Osiris – god of resurrection and the netherworld. Meanwhile, models of the papyrus vessels that were likewise used in the ritual would have been cast in lead and also thrown into the river. And several of these have been found, too.

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In conclusion, it’s worth noting that the discovery of Ship 17 is so significant that a whole book has been written about it. The book is the work of Alexander Belov – an archaeologist from the Centre for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. And in it, Belov analyzes the ship and how it fits with both Herodotus’ writing and the wider ship-building history of the Nile. Called Ship 17: A Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, it’s doubtless worth a read if you want to find out more about this fascinating subject.

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