THE lost world of Cleopatra’s palaces has been dug out of the muddy Mediterranean sea bed by a man dubbed the Underwater Indiana Jones.
The results of Franck Goddio’s excavations, comprising 500 priceless finds that shed light on 1,500 years of ancient history, will be put on public view today for the first time.
President Mubarak of Egypt will open the exhibition in Berlin, and it will later transfer to Paris and London and eventually to a specially prepared site in Egypt.
“It was an astonishing feeling to find and handle beautiful objects that have been touched by Cleopatra,” said M Goddio, a 58-year-old Frenchman who abandoned a career as a financial consultant to pursue his passion for maritime archaeology.
For the past 12 years he has been excavating the sunken harbour of Alexandria, the legendary lost city of Heracleion and the religious centre of Canopus.
Floods, earthquakes and erosion swallowed up these once-vibrant communities. Although some of the recovered fragments have been shown, they have never been put together in a single comprehensive collection.
The Goddio team discovered 5.4m (18ft) red granite statues of an Egyptian king, queen and the fertility god Hapi, as well as thousands of smaller statues of gods and rulers, masks of pharaohs, gold and stone jewellery, and an intact black slab pronouncing import duties on Greek products.
One of the most significant discoveries was the fragment of a shrine, the Naos of the Decades, which made it possible for M Goddio to reconstruct the first astrological calendar in the world.
Among the treasures is a sphinx bearing the face of Ptolemy XII, the father of Cleopatra, a reminder that parts of the royal quarter with its temples, palaces and gardens were in Alexandria’s eastern harbour, where Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra stayed.
Working from 19th-century maps and the results of an early excavation by Prince Omar Tousson, M Goddio set about testing theories about the geography of the sunken harbour area.
What emerged was a picture of a remarkably well-designed metropolis divided by grand canals.
“We showed the designs to port engineers who told us that they couldn’t have done a better job,” he said. “It was not only an act of brilliant engineering it was also beautiful to look at.”
The port was developed by Ptolemy II, in 300BC.
Using magnetic resonance machines and sonars, M Goddio fished out the relics. Each fragment had to be freed from the effects of the seawater in an onboard laboratory.
The statues were descaled, chemically and electronically tested, and then restored.
M Goddio was initially regarded with suspicion by university archaeologists because he trained as a mathematician and came late to the profession.
But his passionate, slightly buccaneering manner has helped to attract sponsorship in a way that no academic archaeological team could have hoped to collect.
His high-tech explorations cost about €1 million (£680,000) a month, and tens of thousands of diving hours have been dedicated to excavating a few hundred metres of the ancient sites. The total area is thought to be about a square kilometre. He does not welcome comparisons with the maverick Indiana Jones. “I am not an adventurer,” he said yesterday. “My role is to avoid adventure since it is expensive, it wastes time and does not lead to a job well done.”
The exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, a converted Kaiser-era palace near the former Berlin Wall, will be open until September 4.