Ancient Egypt has become synonymous with the golden face of King Tut’s tomb, mummies galore and the great pyramids. But sunken treasures? That’s usually something left to pirate flicks, not art exhibitions — until now.
“Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” opening Nov. 4, is on its way to the Minneapolis Institute of Art after three stops in Europe and its U.S. debut at the St. Louis Art Museum. The exhibition centers on the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion, which once was the main port of entry to Egypt, and Canopus, the site of temples devoted to the god Osiris. Both disappeared under the waters of the Mediterranean Sea more than 1,200 years ago through a combination of earthquakes and floods, combined with the sheer weight of the temples and statues.
There they rested like buried treasure until the year 2000, when French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio set out to locate their remains off the Egyptian coast near Alexandria. These cities had been a mystery. The only previous sighting came from a pilot in 1933, after which a couple of items were excavated.
The show brings together Goddio’s 20-plus years of discoveries, including more than 200 artifacts such as gold coins, jewelry and bronze vessels, and three 16-foot-tall stone sculptures of a pharaoh, queen and god, each weighing up to 12,000 pounds.
The excavation — and the show — point to an enduring fascination with Egyptian art and culture. A 2003 exhibition at the Art Institute, “Eternal Egypt,” ranks among the museum’s 10 most attended shows.
“A lot of Egyptian art is about death, mortality and afterlife, and that concerns all of us, whatever the period,” said Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, the institute’s curator of African art, who has been overseeing this exhibition. “The show illustrates one of the oldest rituals of Egypt, which is about Osiris, god of afterlife and resurrection.”
Bringing this show to Minneapolis is a display of strength and a marvel at the beauty of ancient Egypt.
A crew from France will come to install the show, using pre-made mounts for pieces large and small. The art-experienced rigging company Rocket Crane will conduct placement of the 12,000-pound colossus of a Ptolemaic-era king and an 8,818-pound Ptolemaic queen in the Art Institute lobby. The third colossus, of the god Hapy (9,700 pounds), will be hoisted into the rotunda area. They will be visible from all three levels of the building.
Structural engineers from Meyer Borgman Johnson are working with the museum to make sure these massive figures won’t break the floors. The platforms will be reinforced and oversized to distribute the weight.
The museum’s exhibitions designer, Michael Lapthorn, is in charge of bringing all of these moving parts together, confirming weights and ensuring that mounts and frames are in tiptop shape.
“For this show I want to do a lot of axial alignments,” he said. “You look at the buildings of Egypt and the way the temples were lined up, and you see that the objects were on axes — gods looking at each other, coming around corners and seeing things looking at you.”
Lapthorn came to the Art Institute four years ago, after 10 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is his heaviest show yet, unless you count a miscalculation on some cast iron Buddhas he handled at the Met.
“They were telling me that it was 1,000 pounds,” he said. “I was like, ‘A cast iron Buddha of that size does not weigh 1,000 pounds.’ ”
Turned out those Buddhas were actually 1,000 kilograms — 2,200 pounds — and that meant halting the installation to figure out a solution.
There is no mistaking the weight of these colossi. The display will include videos of the underwater excavation. They were uncovered in water that was actually only about 30 feet deep, off the mouth of the Nile River, where the water is turbid and there are strong currents.
“It’s kind of a two-faced show — it is about the Egyptian material and the cult of Osiris and the rituals around that,” Lapthorn said. “But it is also a really interesting look at underwater archaeology and how did Franck get these pieces. So there is a NatGeo feel to it.”
Part of the fascination here is the journey from water to land.
“All the remains of these cities were buried under 10 feet of silt and sand,” Grootaers said. “They weren’t just visible.”
While they will be firmly planted on land for six months, they won’t be here indefinitely — a reminder of how many empires have ended, and how many humans have come before us.