Unbelievable part 4: Underwater Archaeology

29 November 2019

A week after Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable opened on 9 April 2017, in the UK Channel 4 aired a documentary called Rome’s Sunken Secrets detailing the discovery and finds from the sunken Roman city of Baiae. Baiae was an ancient holiday resort near Naples and Pompeii where emperors, members of the senate and the excessively rich kept villas. A total escape from Rome and serious work, it was the site of many scandals and where the pursuit of pleasures played out. There are palatial ruins above ground, but more than half are submerged with the landscape, mosaics and vibrantly coloured frescoes adorned with stucco figures preserved underwater. Baiae was the size of a city but had no Roman landmarks, just luxury villas. At the edge of the site are the remnants of a building with chambers and studies featuring marble-surfaced statues adopting Greek styles. The Romans plundered art and culture when they conquered Greece and maintained a fascination with Greek art. One grotto was dedicated to water nymphs; the archaeologists think it was a large dining room where meals would be taken around and in a pool of water. This watery vision and soundscape indicated excessive wealth and the desire to show off that excess. They posited that it was an imperial villa that had belonged to Claudius.

This documentary is proving useful in my investigations around Treasures, not only for the information on archaeologists’ findings and how they decipher evidence, but for the footage of the dives and conditions of the preserved artefacts. Photography and video were significant inclusions in Treasures, adding verisimilitude and the gravitas afforded by high-quality images. They add plausibility to the most absurd scenarios, such as the coral-covered Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney waving from the ocean floor while performing as an ancient relic. It was looking into the exhibition’s photography and its credited photographer Christoph Gerigk that took my line of inquiry into a world of sunken cities.

In 2001, Gerigk was awarded third prize in the Science and Technology category of the annual World Press Photo competition for his coverage of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology’s (IEASM) excavations in Aboukir Bay approximately 15 miles north east of Alexandria. His continued documentation of the institute’s long-term ‘Sunken Civilizations’ project led by Franck Goddio earned him second prize in the same competition and category the following year. Having so many photographs from their excavations available to view on official websites allows for useful comparisons with the exhibition images, not least to see how coral and barnacles growing on submerged ancient artefacts actually looks. The images from the IEASM digs show that apart from the layers of sand, silt and dead shells that were cleaned off with relative ease, no lifeforms (at least none visible to the eye) had made the artefacts – many of which were far over 2000 years old – their homes. The photos also show just how dark and murky, due in large part to pollution, the bay’s shallow waters are (45m compared to the main basin of the Indian Ocean where the Treasures haul was claimed to be found with an average depth of over 3,700m).

More recently, the findings yielded from these sub-aqua excavations significant for their discovery of the sunken Greco-Egyptian port cities of Thonis-Herakleion, Canopus, Menouthis and Naukratis – lost for so long they were thought to be mythical – led to major international exhibitions. From September 2015 to January (extended to March) 2016, the Arab World Institute, Paris, presented Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt, which comprised around 250 artefacts from the digs that began in the late 1990s (plus around 40 borrowed from the museums of Cairo and Alexandria). Framed around the ceremonial rites of the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris, visitors were encouraged to become part of the celebrations in an imagined re-enactment of the processions along the River Nile, while also exploring the submerged cities in environments designed by scenographers Sylvain Roca and Nicolas Groult. Rather than being invited to simply see the artefacts, visitors were engaged in performing these dual roles as underwater archaeologists and participants in ancient traditions. 

Not quite as performative but no less spectacular in design and scope was Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds at the British Museum, London, from 19 May to 27 November 2016. The first exhibition there to focus on marine archaeology, it presented around 300 artefacts which, similarly to Treasures, ranged dimensionally from coins and jewellery to huge statues weighing six tons. As well as the monumental nature of many of the works, the exhibition included audio installations, videos and lighting arrangements. 

Thinking back to my previous post, given descriptions of Thonis-Herakleion as a city comprising of a cluster of islands that amounted to the one-time major trading port of the Mediterranean that sank under its own weight and memories of past glory, it is clear there was no more appropriate setting for Hirst’s extravagant take on these excavations, exhibitions and histories than Venice, now at the mercy of the climate crisis. Finding and showing these artefacts has recovered cities like Thonis-Herakleion from the realm of myth. Not only do they resituate what was once a major Mediterranean trading port into history, the artefacts provide evidence for its mixed cultural life. Particularly significant is an inscribed stele which confirms that Thonis and Herakleion (named for the Greek hero Herakles) were not separate Egyptian and Greek cities but were in fact one large Greco-Egyptian city whose inhabitants shared gods and exchanged artistic processes and styles. Several reviewers of Sunken Cities point out that this is no more prominent than in the statue of Ptolemaic Egyptian queen Arsinoe II. As James Pickford describes, ‘[t]he figure adopts a dignified pose seen in Egyptian statuary [that is, with the left leg forward, a stance denoting power and grace] and is fashioned from local granite. But the artful folds of the delicate garment she wears are typical of Greek sculpture’. He also quotes exhibition curator Aurelia Masson-Bergoff as saying that ‘the discoveries “have completely transformed our understanding of interaction between these great civilisations in the late first millennium”’.

While the findings from the IEASM digs provide growing evidence that ancient Greeks participated in cultural exchange and lived in mixed communities instead of solely claiming foreign land for their empire’s outposts, it is the money to be made from international tourism that attracts sustained financial backing for continuing excavation and research at the sites today. As early as 2000, this potential for tourism of showing unearthed markers of our ancient ancestors was under way. Writing for The Guardian at the time of the initial discoveries back then, Brian Whitaker observed that ‘[a]rchaeology in Egypt has become increasingly influenced by politics and showbusiness. Mindful of its beneficial effect on the tourist industry, government ministers often become directly involved in projects, while major discoveries are carefully stage-managed and invariably televised’. This scale of stage-management was itself stage-managed and is one of many theatrical elements of Hirst’s similarly themed Venice show the year after the British Museum’s. It too incorporated media interest around the finds into the fabric of the show’s mythology, using the weight and verisimilitude of Gerigk as, not just any underwater photographer, but one recognised in prize culture for his journalistic documenting of real marine excavations. His photographs were integral to these exhibitions and their press coverage. As his awards for their quality indicate, they have also been illustrating the ongoing digs for nearly two decades now. It is no surprise, then, that Hirst would make Gerigk’s photography equally vital to the verisimilitude and drama of Treasures, too.

In his images of Goddio’s team and their findings, Gerigk went beyond purely observational documentation of the events as they happened. With high-key lighting cutting through pollution and the clouding caused by the disturbed seabed, Gerigk’s framings of giant bronze or stone deities, kings and pharaohs emerging from the silt into long lost light or resting as schools of fish swim by possess a dramatic aesthetic which befits the significance of their recovery. Such posing of the artefacts in photographs recurs throughout Treasures as indexical markers of their discovery and recovery, which is staged perhaps more overtly in the accompanying documentary clips in the exhibition and feature-length film on Netflix. Perhaps hoping to dupe an audience unfamiliar with the exhibition, the film holds back clues revealing the story’s fabrication until its closing minutes, whereas whichever venue and order visitors took when viewing the exhibition, it was never long before encountering unsubtle references to contemporary popular culture.

As I’ll explore in a later post, the Treasures sculptures feature many nods to cinematic special effects which for me point towards the special and visual effects in the show’s film and photography. This sleight-of-hand deflection and the insistence on the story that most works were recovered from their oceanic home of 2000 years suggests that these creative works predate computer-generated imaging and Photoshop, that they have a physicality and a sense of being hand-crafted. The exhibition plays on a widespread assumption that the camera does not lie, particularly when what it captures is documentary in nature. What general viewers may not realise is that much contemporary realist film and television use CGI for colour-grading and aesthetic touch-ups, for instance. We need only read the rolling credits – those undervalued goldmines of information – to learn the truth that has been in full view the whole time. We must question why when water tanks and image compositing are used so frequently for undersea shooting in much popular moving image production, audiences find such fakery convincing in fiction, but largely did not question how clear and bright the deep ocean-bed images are in the photography and films attached to the Treasures project.

Proteus with Three Divers, or is that a Lynchian Elephant Man?


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