A free-floating captain salvaging sunken past

November 9, 2006

Michael North meets the underwater archaeologist who discovered the legendary lost Egyptian city of Heracleion.

It was an almost 2m-high stele, black granite, absolutely intact," says Franck Goddio, recounting one of the most spectacular finds of his career as a marine archaeologist. The inscribed stone slab was found under a wall in the temple of Heracles 7km off the Egyptian coast near Alexandria. Its significance was immense. The object solved a 2,000-year-old enigma because its inscription proved the existence of the legendary city of Heracleion and showed that it and the ancient city of Thonis were one and the same place. Even the Ancient Greek geographer Strabo was unaware of this when he went to the region in the 1st century BC. "All that time later, we had uncovered something about the region that Strabo didn't know," Goddio marvels.

The stele and some 500 other artefacts that offer a glimpse of more than 1,500 years of Egyptian history have been on display in Berlin, but from December the exhibition of Goddio's discoveries, Egypt's Sunken Treasures , comes to his native Paris. From there it will go on an 18-month tour.

Visiting Goddio at his elegant flat in the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris, it is hard to believe that the tanned, youthful man who opens the door is the 59-year-old veteran of underwater archaeology. Only the thinning hair gives him away. In his marine-blue shirt, he looks like a modern-day Jacques Cousteau. It is a name with which he has inevitably been associated as he roams the world in his research ship loaded to the gunwales with high-tech gear accompanied by a dedicated team of divers and scientists.

Goddio is flattered by the comparison to Cousteau, but plays down the similarities. "When I was young I saw Cousteau's movie Monde du Silence and I was fascinated. He was the first to dive into that world, and he was the first in the 1950s to try underwater archaeology; but he was intelligent enough to say that he had to stop. He found it frustrating. His goal was more the preservation of nature and animals."

Goddio well knows the frustrations and difficulties of his field, and his success has been hard won. He came to archaeology late. He first studied at the elite Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Administration Economique in Paris and became a civil servant. He then worked as an economic adviser to the French Foreign Ministry in Asia and in Saudi Arabia for seven years, as well as spending time at the UN.

In his thirties he took a sabbatical year to pursue his passion. "I went all over the world where there was underwater archaeology, studying what was being done by governments, universities, associations and private groups. At the end of it, I thought there was really room for an independent institution that worked with different governments but that did not depend on state finances."

After his first field studies in Asia, which were self-financed before sponsors started to take an interest, Goddio founded the Institut Europeen d'Archeologie Sous-Marine in Paris. The institute works in tandem with the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology to focus global expertise in the field.

Goddio is funded by the Hilti Foundation, an arm of the Liechtenstein-based Hilti Corporation, a construction equipment company with a turnover of more than £1.4 billion.

Goddio says his non-profit independent status allows him to select projects without being bound by the agenda and bureaucracy of a state-funded archaeology department. He explains that if a fisherman, for example, discovers a Roman boat from the 1st century a state-funded department is obliged to excavate, even if a lot is known about that period. "But we say we will make a study of all the export of goods from China to the Philippines from the 9th to the 18th centuries and we fill in the gaps - so today we are just missing boats from the 14th and early 15th centuries. We are totally free to say, 'OK, you found it, but we will not excavate it'."

Goddio's team - which numbers about 40 permanent on-board staff - is trusted around the globe. He describes, for instance, how the Philippines National Museum calls on him if there is an important find that has been disturbed by fishermen, who often use dynamite, and divers and looters start to strip the wreck. "We have to be extremely fast and reactive in any season. Once we did an excavation on a 15th-century wreck in the typhoon season. It was difficult, but if you do not do it, people can wait for one clear day and go there (and disturb the site)."

Among the 14 historically important ships Goddio and his team have excavated are the Spanish galleon San Diego , the British East India Company ships Griffin and Royal Captain and Napoleon's flagship Orient . The experience they gained on those wrecks served them well in the discovery of the submerged Egyptian Royal Quarters of Alexandria in 1996, and the lost cities and monuments of Heracleion and its suburb of Canopus in the Bay of Aboukir in following years. Goddio believes a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, destroyed Heracleion by the end of the 8th century AD - ten closely bunched shipwrecks that show the location of Heracleion's once teeming harbour suggest that a tidal wave engulfed the city.

Goddio's team is working on the Canopic Channel, a waterway between Heracleion and Canopus in the region of modern-day Alexandria. "It was famous and has been mentioned by many ancient authors. There were ceremonies and mysteries dedicated to Osiris (the Egyptian god of the dead). It was also where people had fun and danced and enjoyed the famous Canopic life much decried by the Romans," he adds, referring to the region's reputation in Roman times as a centre of debauchery.

Goddio says his intimate acquaintance with history has given him a deep appreciation of how history repeats itself. He gives the example of how the Temple of Canopus, a sacred place of worship in the ancient world, was destroyed by the Christians who used its stones to build a monastery. "They built the monastery in the same place even though there was sea on one side and sand on the other. People came from all over the Christian world to worship there. It is like things are changing and not changing."

He adds: "On the sites of Canopus and Heracleion we start with the late Pharaonic period [from about 3150BC to 31BC], then you have the foreigners coming from Greece, then the Christians, and then the Islamic period. We are covering 15 centuries on this site. It is strange that peoples got on better when there was a correspondence, a similarity between their gods. You have less confrontation when there are parallel gods."

Goddio says that the Egyptian project has been his proudest achievement and says the exhibition is the ultimate reward for decades of work. "Of course, the discovery and mapping of the site and the science involved is a great achievement, but from a psychological point of view the best achievement is the exhibition. When you see the artefacts that you have seen underwater well restored and well explained and when all the beautiful ones are gathered together, it is amazing."

Goddio will be back in his wetsuit next April when he is due to return to the Heracleion site - he says that there are at least 100 years of work left on it. But for now he is happy to stay in Paris to organise the coming exhibition. "Sometimes I prefer to be dry," he jokes.

Egypt's Sunken Treasures exhibition runs from December 8 for 13 days in the Grand Palais, near the Champs Elysées, Paris.

Details: www.franckgoddio.org

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