How archaeologists discovered Ancient Egypt’s perfectly preserved underwater cities

Image: Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - PHOTO: Christoph Ger Igk

Two ancient cities have been discovered, perfectly preserved, at the bottom of the Nile.

But how do you go about finding a lost city (or two)?

Dr Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, is a member of the discovery team. The treasures he and his team found are the subject of a new exhibition, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, at the British museum.

“In 1933 a British RAF pilot flew over the Aboukir Bay and saw what he thought was remains under the water,” he tells me. “The pilot reported them to a local prince who sent a diver to investigate but nothing was found.”

The Second World War and later the Cold War stopped any further exploration of these ruins until 2000, when archaeologist Franck Goddio of the Institut Européen d’Archólogie Sous-Marine entered the story.

Image: Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation - Photo: Christoph Gerigk

With geo-sensing survey techniques, he measured different properties of the Earth’s surface and made a detailed map of the seabed. “Using a nuclear resonance magnetometer, specially developed by a French energy commission, he was able to measure the earth's magnetic field and variations in it caused by the local deposit geology.”

The maps chronicled the sunken landscape and its main topographical features. The team began detailed investigations by zeroing in on areas that looked like they had a lot of potential for excavation.

The two cities they rediscovered, the Egyptian city Thonis-Heracleion and the Greek city of Canopus, were built on unstable Nile clays. “They have a lot of water in them,” Robinson says. “The load of people caused the sediment to collapse, pushing the water out and causing people to abandon the city. This, in 800AD, was the first of two dramatic collapses, but the land itself didn’t fully sink until 1000 years later due to rising sea levels.”

As the water was squeezed out of the sediment, the sand settled on the ruins, preserving them perfectly. But it didn't look like much at first glimpse. “[The recovery was] not as spectacular as you'd think because there’s so much sand,” Robinson recalls. “Visibility was also very poor because of algae that give the water a green tinge. So we can only go digging at specific times – now and in October.”

And how did they date the relics? “Historically and scientifically – for dating the city itself – by pots and artefacts discovered because pottery changes each period and are massively studied. For ships, we did radiocarbon dating.” The team found 69 ships – the largest collection of ancient ships found to date.

The importance of the Egyptian city make the discoveries all the more exciting. “It was an obligatory entry point for Greek ships when Greece was providing Egypt with mercenaries to help defend it. The two also swapped ideas about religion, equating many of their gods,” Robinson says. Thonis-Heracleion (or Heracleion for short), for example, was named after its Greek temple to Hercules.

“The right to rule Egypt was established in this city by pharaohs going to the temple to receive a case that contained a contract or inventory of all the things he had to take care of on behalf of the office.” As the discoveries have been predominantly Egyptian until now, Robinson hopes they’ll find more of a Greek presence there too.

So far though, the haul of religious artefacts is rich and is already broadening our knowledge of the time. “The resurrection of Osiris is a major festival period in Egyptian life. The ritual navigation of Osiris on a boat through the waterways was a major part of this. We discovered a local version of this done at Heracleion. We can tell entire stories just from the objects and the texts we found.”

Stories of everyday life, however, have proven harder to piece together. Robinson tells me that ordinary houses were made of mud brick that have now decomposed. However, there are some glimpses into common rituals: “Athenian coin weights bought by a merchant and used as a thank you offering for the gods for safely bringing him into the port were deposited in the middle of the port.”

Some of the treasures are enormous, with the statue of the god Hapi – the personification of the river Nile – standing at five metres tall, making him and the statues of the king and queen the biggest ever discovered.

Do the discoverers have any favourite findings?

“Franck Goddio likes the black stele [a stone erected as a monument] inscribed with the decree of Saïs because it tells him the name of the city and things like how its taxation works. I like a series of small barges – about 30cm long that have lead models of the gods and are carved. They are ritual barges – replicas of those that floated along in processions. I like it because it talks about the boating traditions of these individuals.”

The piece originally appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.