A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Nearly half a million people flocked to "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" in Berlin to see the ancient statues, inscriptions, and other artifacts recovered over the past decade from Alexandria's harbor and the submerged cities of Herakleion and Canopus in expeditions led by Franck Goddio, a French businessman turned archaeologist. Those who missed the show there and can't catch it in Paris, in January 2007, or in London later next year, may want to peruse the oversize companion volume of the same name.
Egypt's Sunken Treasures (Prestel, $49.95) tries to be a scholarly work, a coffee-table book, and an exhibition catalogue all at once. There's no denying the expertise of the contributors, such as historian Manfred Clauss and Egyptologist Jean Yoyotte, but the text is far too detailed for the average reader. There are lengthy academic essays on ancient religion that present a mass of details, but the book does not provide enough of an overview for readers to understand the big picture. On the coffee-table side, there are pages upon pages of photos showing sculptures being hoisted out of the sea and divers looking into the eyes of ancient stone sphinxes, priests, and queens. Many of the underwater scenes seem staged; divers awkwardly point to hieroglyphs on inscriptions, but there's no indication in the caption or text that the glyphs being indicated are of particular significance.
Goddio's work as an underwater archaeologist has been criticized for yielding more exhibitions and coffee-table books than serious research. For his part, Goddio says that he works with professionals and excavates to answer research questions. Big shows and lavishly illustrated volumes, he says, are a way to bridge the gap between academic archaeology and the public. But Goddio's flamboyant style undoubtedly alienates some archaeologists, and it doesn't help that the Franck Goddio Society website cheerily claims that "he is probably the most successful marine archaeologist in the world."
A major exhibition accompanied by a substantial scholarly work could cement Goddio's place in mainstream archaeology and silence detractors. That could be why the book's text emphasizes detail but neglects the big picture. Critics who want to see more results from Goddio's high-profile undertakings are right, but I am also sympathetic to his view that the public must be involved in archaeology. Unfortunately, Egypt's Sunken Treasures is an attempt to do both and it just doesn't work.
Mark Rose is ARCHAEOLOGY's online editorial director.
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