Coins and Underwater Archaeology

Franck Goddio is a French underwater archaeologist who has been excavating in the bay of Alexandria and the Aboukir Bay since 1992. Some of the finds that he and his team have made in those areas are absolutely breathtaking. They rediscovered the cities of Canopus and Herakleion that are submerged. He and his team have found things as large as colossal statues and stelae and as small as coins and earrings. This is one way that Ptolemaic coins have become relevant in fascinating new archaeological studies in the past two decades.


Fig. 13 Diver with sphinx made of black granite in the harbor of Alexandria. The sphinx is thought to be Ptolemy XII Auletes, father of Cleopatra VII. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Jérôme Delafosse

Fig. 13 is just one of the countless amazing photographs of divers with statues taken during Franck Goddio’s excavations in the harbor at Alexandria. The sphinx in this photo is thought to be Ptolemy XII Auletes, the father of Cleopatra VII because of his fleshy face and features. In this picture you can see how the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt adopted Egyptian iconography in their royal sculpture. This Ptolemaic king is depicted as an Egyptian-style sphinx with a triangular nemes cloth headdress that hearkens back to Pharaonic Era depictions of pharaohs as sphinxes.



Fig. 14 Ptolemy II Philadelphos AV Pentadrachm. Obverse die signed by the artist D. Alexandria mint. Diademed bust of Ptolemy I right, in aegis; tiny D behind ear / Eagle standing left on thunderbolt; monogram to left.

The coin in Fig. 14 was found in one of Franck Goddio’s underwater excavations. The coins found by Goddio and his team differed greatly from those found at sites that were not submerged in water. In excavations on land frequently the only coins that remain are the bronze ones because they were less desirable for looters than gold and silver. The underwater sites still have many bronze coins as evidence of the coins of everyday transactions, but they also have the full range of precious metal coins because they have not been looted. The coins at found at Canopus and Herakleion were “undisturbed by the prying hands of intruders,” and for that reason they found many precious metal coins, including ones like the pentadrachm in Fig. 14. Franck Goddio and his crew found many gold coins with the image of Ptolemy I Soter in their excavations in the Canopic areas. Underwater archaeology in Egypt has given archaeologists and numismatists a better idea of what coins were circulated and may have been looted from sites on land. Canopus and Heraklaion were entire towns preserved underwater and Franck Goddio and his team found both monumental statues and small coins that give scholars a better picture of Ptolemaic society.

Goddio’s Website

Next: Experimental Archaeology: The Eagles of Alexandria