Lost at sea for 1,000 years, recently discovered Egyptian artifacts headed for St. Louis
For centuries it was the main port of call for trade in ancient Egypt, home to the heroes of Greek legend and a place where titles and power were bestowed on new pharaohs.
The Egyptians called it Thonis. The Greeks called it Heracleion. But for all the ancient texts mentioning it, for more than 1,000 years there were no artifacts, nor any sign on land of the ancient metropolis.
That changed 17 years ago, when French explorer Franck Goddio found its astoundingly well-preserved ruins in shallow waters just miles off the Egyptian coast. Next year, the same artifacts of religious, commercial and daily antiquity that were the talk of ancient Mediterranean civilization will make their North American premiere in St. Louis.
"There's one sculpture of a queen that almost brought me to tears when I saw it," said Lisa Çakmak, the St. Louis Art Museum's associate curator of ancient art. "These objects create such a visceral connection between people who live today and those who lived 2,000 years ago."
The St. Louis Art Museum will host the massive exhibit, seen previously in just a handful of Europe's most prestigious museums since the 290 objects were dredged from the sea in 2000. They range from intricately detailed household kitchenware to 18-foot-high statues of pharaohs and gods that once stood watch outside the city's main temple.
The temporary exhibit, which will take up 10,000 square feet of exhibit space with a program budget of $4 million, opens March 25 for a six-month run here.
"This is logistically one of the biggest projects to my knowledge the museum has undertaken," Çakmak said. "I don't know that we've ever had sculptures as large as we're going to have in the building."
The museum's special exhibition space will expand into the high-ceiling Sculpture Hall nearby to host the 16- and 17-foot high statues, which would otherwise bump against the ceiling in the usual temporary exhibit space, the museum's director of exhibitions Jeanette Fausz said.
"We have another 11 works that weigh more than 1,000 pounds, up to 6,000 pounds," Fausz said. "We had to work with a structural engineer to confirm floor loads and platform loads."
Before Alexandria rose to prominence as Egypt's premier port city, it was Thonis-Heracleion that was the entry point for ships from Greece. It was where the Greek historian Herodotus claimed Sparta's Helen absconded with her lover, Paris of Troy, which sparked the Trojan War, and where the Greek hero Heracles first stepped on the African continent.
But in most cases the people who called it home were poor or middle class, Çakmak said, and for all the immense wealth found just 40 feet below sea level, there is just as much illuminating what life was like for those people.
"Many lived in shacks of mud bricks that would have evaporated when the city sank," she said. "But some of their belongings, religious statuettes just a few inches in size, things that would have been more affordable and more common, these tell us how they lived."
Unlike Pompeii, the ancient Roman city destroyed in short order by a volcanic eruption, Thonis-Heracleion diminished over centuries due to the sinking porous unstable land it was built on, hastened by natural disasters including earthquakes and tsunamis that struck over time. The city existed from about the 8th century B.C. to the 8th century A.D., according to Goddio's website, reaching its zenith in the Late Period, 664–332 B.C.
Goddio's research revealed Thonis-Heracleion was important both as a center of trade and as a site of religious pilgrimage. The excavation helped scholars understand the Mysteries of Osiris, an annual water procession along the canals between Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus commemorating one of Egypt's most important myths — the murder and resurrection of the god Osiris.
In addition to the hundreds of works discovered by Goddio's team, the exhibition also includes complementary artifacts from museums in Cairo and Alexandria, some of which never have been shown outside of Egypt.
Dispute 'is history'
The exhibition isn't just noteworthy for its historical significance or sheer size, which includes 290 objects and will require the museum to expand its temporary exhibit space for the March opening. It's the museum's first collaboration with Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities since, fewer than 10 years ago, its leader called for St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin to be put on trial in Egypt for antiquities theft.
The tension centered on the 3,200-year-old funeral mask of Egyptian noblewoman Ka-Nefer-Nefer, purchased by the museum in 1998 from a New York-based antiquities dealer for $499,000. Egypt's government, which lost track of the mask in 1973, claimed in 2006 it was stolen and demanded its return.
The Egyptian government's argument persuaded the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and file a forfeiture lawsuit to force the museum to return it, an effort the museum fought and won before a U.S. District Court judge in 2012. The government then unsuccessfully appealed the ruling.
The issue wasn't resolved until 2014, when U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said the government would take no further legal action.
At the time, Callahan acknowledged his office only had "a lack of record showing a lawful transfer," not proof the mask was stolen.
Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities is a partner in the exhibit along with the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology and the Hilti Foundation. Fausz said it's further confirmation the dispute between the museum and the Egyptian government is history.
"This is really a very positive step for us and our relationship with Egypt," Fausz said. "They've made it very clear the mummy mask is not an issue and they're happy to send the show to St. Louis."
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