2,400-year-old baskets still filled with fruit found in the submerged Egyptian city

Doum nuts and grape seeds have been discovered in wicker jars found in the ruins of Thônis-Heracleion.

Archaeologists excavating the underwater metropolis of Thônis-Heracleion in Egypt’s harbor of Abū Qīr unearthed wicker fruit baskets dating from the fourth century BCE.

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A fragment of one of the fruit baskets brought to the surface by the French underwater archaeology team at Thonis-Heracleion. © Hilti Foundation

Surprisingly, the jars still contain doum nuts and grape seeds, the fruit of an African palm tree deemed sacred by the ancient Egyptians.

“Nothing was disturbed,” marine archaeologist Franck Goddio tells Dalya Alberge of the Guardian. “It was very striking to see baskets of fruits.”

Goddio and his colleagues at the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) uncovered the containers in collaboration with Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Researchers have been surveying the ancient Mediterranean port city of Thônis-Heracleion since its rediscovery in 2001, according to Egypt Independent.

The baskets were stored in an underground room and may have been funerary offerings reports the Greek City Times. Nearby, the researchers found a 197- by 26-foot tumulus or burial mound, and an extravagant array of Greek funerary goods likely left by merchants and mercenaries living in the area.

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Researchers excavating the sunken ruins of Thônis-Heracleion have discovered an array of archaeological treasures. © Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

“Everywhere we found evidence of burned material,” says Goddio in a statement, as quoted by CNN’s Radina Gigova. “Spectacular ceremonies must have taken place there. The place must have been sealed for hundreds of years as we have found no objects from later than the early fourth century BCE, even though the city lived on for several hundred years after that.”

Other objects found on or surrounding the tumulus included ancient pottery, bronze artifacts, and figurines depicting the Egyptian god Osiris.

“We found hundreds of deposits made of ceramic,” Goddio tells the Guardian. “One above the other. These are imported ceramic, red on black figures.”

Thônis-Heracleion was established in the ninth century B.C.E. Before the foundation of Alexandria about 331 BCE, the city functioned as the “obligatory port of entry into Egypt for all ships arriving from the Greek world,” according to Goddio’s website.

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This stele reveals that Thonis (Egyptian) and Heracleion (Greek) were the same city. © Hilti Foundation

The thriving commercial center peaked between the sixth and fourth century BCE Structures fanned out from a central temple, with waterways linking various portions of the city. Houses and other religious structures stood on islands near Thônis-Heracleion

Once an epicenter for maritime commerce, the city sank into the Mediterranean in the eighth century CE. Some historians attribute the metropolis’ downfall to rising sea levels and collapsing, unstable sediment, as Reg Little wrote for Oxford Mail in 2022. Others posit that earthquakes and tidal waves caused a 42-square-mile segment of the Nile Delta to collapse into the sea, as per CNN.

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As the Art Newspaper’s Emily Sharpe reported in 2022, experts once thought that Heracleion, referenced by Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE — was a separate city from Thônis, which is the site’s Egyptian name. A tablet found by Goddio’s team in 2001 helped researchers conclude that the two locations were the same.

Recovering objects from the ruins of Thônis-Heracleion is a grueling task due to the layers of protective sediment covering them.

“The goal is to learn as much as possible from our excavation without being intrusive,” Goddio told the Art Newspaper in 2022.

According to the Oxford Mail, other finds at Thônis-Heracleion include more than 700 antique anchors, gold coins and weights, and scores of small limestone sarcophagi holding the bones of mummified animals. Archaeologists discovered a well-preserved second-century BCE military vessel in a separate section of the city last month.

Further items are expected to be discovered at the site in the future, according to experts. Goddio told the Guardian that just 3% of the buried metropolis has been studied in the 20 years after its rediscovery.