Wicker baskets filled with fruit that have survived from the 4th century BC and hundreds of ancient ceramic artefacts and bronze treasures have been discovered in the submerged ruins of the near-legendary city of Thonis-Heracleion off the coast of Egypt.

They have lain untouched since the city disappeared beneath the waves in the second century BC, then sank further in the eight century AD, following cataclysmic natural disasters, including an earthquake and tidal waves.

Thonis-Heracleion – the city’s Egyptian and Greek names – was for centuries Egypt’s largest port on the Mediterranean before Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331BC. But the vast site in Aboukir Bay near Alexandria was forgotten until its re-discovery by the French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio two decades ago, in one of the greatest archaeological finds of recent times. Colossal statues were among treasures from an opulent civilisation frozen in time. Some of the discoveries were shown in a major exhibition at the British Museum in 2016.

Goddio has been taken aback by the latest discoveries. He told the Guardian that the fruit baskets were “incredible”, having been untouched for more than 2,000 years. They were still filled with doum, the fruit of an African palm tree that was sacred for the ancient Egyptians, as well as grape-seeds.

“Nothing was disturbed. It was very striking to see baskets of fruits.”

One explanation for their survival may be that they were placed within an underground room, Goddio said, noting a possible funerary connotation. It is within an area where Goddio and his team of archaeologists have discovered a sizeable tumulus (a mound raised over graves) – about 60 metres long by 8 metres wide – and sumptuous Greek funerary offerings.

They date from the early fourth century BC when Greek merchants and mercenaries lived in Thonis-Heracleion. The city controlled the entrance to Egypt at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile. The Greeks were allowed to settle there during the late Pharaonic period, constructing their own sanctuaries. Goddio said of the tumulus:

“It is a kind of island surrounded by channels. In those channels, we found an unbelievable amount of deposits made of bronze, including a lot of statuettes of Osiris [the ancient Egyptian fertility god]. On that island, something totally different. We found hundreds of deposits made of ceramic. One above the other. These are imported ceramic, red on black figures from Attic.”

The finds are all the more intriguing because there were vast quantities of miniature ceramics – high-quality Ancient Greek examples, including amphorae– under the tumulus. Bronze artefacts were around the tumulus, including mirrors and statuettes.

Goddio also found extensive evidence of burning, suggesting a “spectacular” ceremony that led to people being barred from entering this site again. It appears to have been sealed for hundreds of years as none of the artefacts found were from later than the early fourth century, even though the city lived on for several hundred years.

“There’s something very strange here. That site has been used maybe one time, never touched before, never touched after, for a reason that we cannot understand for the time being. It’s a big mystery.”

He hopes to find answers within some of the treasures, which include the well-preserved remains of a wooden sofa for banquets, a large Attic vase and a gold amulet of “exquisite quality”.

About 350 metres away, the archaeologists also found a unique Ptolemaic galley, 25 metres in length. While built in the classical tradition, with mortise-and-tenon joints, it also contains features of ancient Egyptian construction, with a flat-bottomed design that would have been perfect for navigation on the Nile and in the delta.

The European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, led by Goddio, works in close cooperation with Egypt’s ministry of tourism and antiquities and with the support of the Hilti Foundation. The finds will be studied and preserved before being put on display in museums.

The potential for further discoveries is tantalising. Even after conducting repeated excavations over the past two decades, Goddio estimates that only about 3% of the area has been explored so far.

In Somerset, England, a British pensioner who wishes to remain anonymous found a 2,300-year-old ancient Hellenic crown packed up in some crumpled up newspapers in an old cardboard box under his bed. According to Daily Mail, which interviewed the man, he had had many possessions left to him by his grandfather, who was a seasoned world traveler and collector.

“I inherited quite a lot of things from him and I just put this to one side for almost a decade and didn’t really think anything of it.”

He took the golden crown, along with some other items, to be appraised by a nearby auction house, Duke’s of Dorchester, about five years ago. It was there that the crown was discovered by one of the appraisers, Guy Schwinge; he described that unforgettable moment to the Daily Mail. 

“When the owner pulled the gold wreath from a tatty cardboard box filled with paper, my heart missed a beat. When I went to the cottage the last thing I expected to see was a piece of gold from antiquity.”

The handmade crown, made of pure gold, is approximately eight inches across and weighs about 100 grams (about 11 ounces, less than one pound). The rare find surprised both the owner as well as the appraiser.

“I knew my grandfather traveled extensively in the 1940s and 50s and he spent time in the northwest frontier area, where Alexander the Great was, so it’s possible he got it while he was there. But he never told me anything about this wreath.”

The mystery, therefore, will remain.

The crown is believed to be from antiquity in Northern Greece, dating as far back as the Hellenistic period, which took place from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. It has been reported that the crown is worth as much as £100,000 to £200,000.

It is not easy to trace the exact lineage of the crown since it has no paper trail or documents, but because it was found with traces of dirt, it is believed that it may have been buried at some point in time.

“It is notoriously difficult to date gold wreaths of this type. Stylistically it belongs to a rarefied group of wreaths datable to the Hellenistic period and the form may indicate that it was made in Northern Greece.”

Crowns such as the one discovered usually depicted branches of laurel, myrtle, oak and olive trees, all symbolic of the ideals and morals held in ancient Hellas such as wisdom, triumph, fertility, peace and virtue.

The crowns, which are extraordinarily fragile, were typically worn on special occasions or dedicated to the gods and placed as offerings at the graves of aristocratic people in ancient times.

It was July 31, 1801, when Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Constantinople, chipped away the first Parthenon sculptures in Athens so that he could take them to Britain. This would ultimately become the beginning of a two-century-old story of a cultural dispute between two friends and allies: Greece and the UK.

Lord Elgin’s real name was Thomas Bruce. He had the titles of the 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine. He was born on July 20, 1766, in Scotland, to the formerly royal house of Bruce. He was the second son of Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin and his wife Martha Whyte, who were living in Fife, near Edinburgh.

Apart from being a prominent nobleman in Scotland, Bruce was also a keen military man. He entered the British Army as an ensign in the Scots Guards in 1785. Following years of successful advancing in the rankings of the Army, he was promoted to Colonel in the Army in 1802, to Major General in 1809, and to Lieutenant General in 1814; all these while he was also serving as a diplomat.ten

His diplomatic career began in 1791 when he was sent as a temporary envoy extraordinary to Austria. He also served in various diplomatic posts representing Britain in Brussels, Prussia, and of course, Constantinople. He arrived there on November 6, 1799, and his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire lasted between 1799 and 1803.

The Scottish diplomat, apart from being a successful military officer, was also a passionate art collector. Thus, in May 1800, a few months after he assumed the prestigious office of the Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the Ottoman Empire, he sent embassy secretary William Hamilton to the occupied town of Athens.

In the early 19th century, the once-buzzing metropolis of the ancient world, was nothing more than a shadow of its former self, a small town in the southern part of the European provinces of the vast Ottoman Empire.

Forgotten by time and its own inhabitants, the city that once ruled the known world was nothing more than a place of ruins, with a few thousand people, mostly peasants, living under the shadows of the glorious past.

This was probably the reason why Elgin was so fascinated with Athens. Its universally priceless monuments were calling to him, as he wanted them to become his own personal property back in Britain, rather than leaving them to stay unappreciated in a small Ottoman town.

Elgin hired a famous Neapolitan painter, Lusieri, and several other skillful draftsmen and modelers from abroad and tasked them with going to Athens for an important mission: To categorize the monuments of the city and see what they could take from it. Unfortunately for him, however, very limited facilities and permissions were granted to them by the Ottoman authorities.

In an interesting turn of events, though, just when international geopolitics led Constantinople into an alliance with Great Britain against France, Elgin seized the opportunity to personally benefit and acquire a huge collection of antiquities.

In 1801 Elgin managed to obtain a letter from Kaimakam Segut Abdullah, who was at that time replacing the Grand Vizier in Constantinople. The letter urged the local Ottoman authorities in Athens to allow Elgin’s people to perform excavations around the Acropolis, provided that they would not damage the monuments.

This was it: Elgin had gotten what he had lusted after so long.

From 1801 to 1804, Elgin’s crews worked tirelessly, removing the priceless treasures from the Acropolis of Athens. Of course, the instruction that they had to make sure that none of the monuments would become damaged was never followed by Elgin’s crew.

By causing considerable damage to sculptures and the monument itself, detaching and dividing a significant portion — about half — of the sculptures decorating the Parthenon, along with some architectural pieces, Elgin’s workers literally butchered one of the most important monuments on the earth. The removable antiquities were to be packed in boxes and transported by sea to England.

The first metopes from the Parthenon were removed exactly 220 years ago, on July 31st, 1801.

By mid-1802, a total of 12 huge boxes had been loaded onto Elgin’s ship, called the ”Mentor.” The collection consisted of portions of the frieze, metopes, and pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as of sculptured slabs from the Athenian temple of Nike Apteros, and various other antiquities from Attica and other districts of then-occupied Greece. The ship, however, sank off the shores of Avlemonas on the island of Kythera (known then as Cerigo), while the crew was heading toward the Western Mediterranean. It took three years for divers to recover all the crates containing the antiquities.

Elgin left the Ottoman Empire in 1803; however, Lusieri remained there, adding pieces to Elgin’s collections until 1812 — nine years after Elgin’s return to Britain. When he got back to his home country, notable personalities in Britain accused him of being a common thief and a vandal who, through improper means like bribery, robbed respected monuments of culture for his own benefit.

The Scottish lord attempted to vindicate himself, as he did not want his reputation to be ruined. In 1810, he issued a pamphlet titled ”Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece,” where he tried to justify his actions.

As the issue had become a heated topic among the British elite, a recommendation of a British parliamentary committee, which supported the conduct of Elgin in the face of public pressure, ordered the sculptures to be purchased by the British government. This happened in 1816 when London paid Elgin £35,000 (almost £3.5 million in today’s values or $5 million) and deposited them in the British Museum. It is noted that the total cost of Elgin’s operation had been calculated to be approximately £75,000 (£7.5 million in 2021 values), much more than what the British government paid to obtain them.

And, as we all know, the Parthenon sculptures are still exhibited in the British Museum to this day, in a windowless room far from the blazing sunshine of their original home in Athens. Greek governments of the past few decades have been making efforts to repatriate the priceless pieces of world civilization to Athens — but tragically, without any positive results as of yet.

 It's been a while since I last tackled a constellation. Sorry about that. I am happy to announce we have reached the 'O''s, which means there are just fourteen left after this one, and thirty-two behind us. There will, however, be a bonus at the end. The constellation Ophiuchus (Ὀφιοῦχος) has has had its stars interpreted in a number of ways throughout the years, and the Hellenic-era interpretations are mostly lost to us. Hyginus is our primary source on this constellation, and he was a Roman man. Lets hope he built upon existing opinion.

Ophiuchus has known many interpretation, but was almost solely called 'Serpent-holder'. In the night's sky, he is located above Scorpio, and holds in his hands a serpent which coils about his body. Hyginus, in his 'Astronomica' gives us five possible men this snake holder could represent: Karnabon, Herakles, Triopas, Phorbas, and Asklēpiós. I will let Hyginus speak for a moment:

"Many have called him Carnabon, king of the Getae, who lived in Thrace. He came into power at the time when it is thought grain was first given to mortals. For when Ceres was distributing her bounties to men, she bade Triptolemus, whose nurse she had been, go around to all the nations and distribute grain, so that they and their descendants might more easily rise above primitive ways of living. He went in a drgon car, and is said to have been the first to use one wheel, so as not to be delayed in his journey. When he came to the king of the Getae, whom we mentioned above, he was at first hospitably received. Later, not as a beneficent and innocent visitor, but as a most cruel foe, he was seized by treachery, and he who was ready to prolong the lives of others, almost lost his own life. For at the order of Carnabon one dragon was killed, so that Tiptolemus might not hope his dragon car could save him when he realized an ambush was being prepared. But Ceres is said to have come there, and restored the stolen chariot to the youth, substituting another dragon, and punishing the king with no slight punishment for his malevolent attempt. For Hegesianax says that Ceres, for men’s remembrance, pictures Carnabon among the stars, holding a dragon in his hands as if to kill it. He lived so painfully that he brought on himself a most welcome death.

Others point out that he is Hercules, killing in Lydia near the river Sagaris a snake which kept destroying many men and stripping the river banks of grain. In return for this deed, Omphale, the queen of that region, sent him back to Argos loaded with gifts, and because of his bravery he was placed by Jove among the constellations.

Some, too, have said that he is Triopas, king of the Thessalians, who, in trying to roof his own house, tore down the temple of Ceres, built by the men of old. When hunger was brought on him by Ceres for this deed, he could never afterward be satisfied by any amount of food. Last of all, toward the end of his life, when a snake was sent to plague him, he suffered many ills, and at last winning death, was put among the stars by the will of Ceres. And so the snake, coiling round him, still seems to inflict deserved and everlasting punishment.

Polyzelus the Rhodian, however, points out that this is Phorbas, who was of great assistance to the Rhodians. The citizens called their island, overrun by a great number of snakes, Ophiussa. In this multitude of beasts was a snake of immense size, which had killed many of them; and when the deserted land began finally to lack men, Phorbas, son of Triopas by Hiscilla, Myrmidon’s daughter, when carried there by a storm, killed all the beasts, as well as that huge snake. Since he was especially favored by Apollo, he was put among the constellations, shown killing the snake for the sake of praise and commemoration. And so the Rhodians, as often as they go with their fleet rather far from their shores, make offerings first for the coming of Phorbas, that such a happening of unexpected valor should befall the citizens as the opportunity for glory which brought Phorbas, unconscious of future praise, to the stars.

Many astronomers have imagined that he is Aesculapius, whom Jupiter [Zeus], for the sake of Apollo, put among the stars. For when Aesculapius was among men, he so fare excelled the rest in the art of medicine that it wasn’t enough for him to have healed men’s diseases unless he could also bring back the dead to life. He is said most recently, according to Eratosthenes to have restored to life Hippolytus who had been killed by the injustice of his stepmother and the ignorance of his father. Some have said that by his skill Glaucus, son of Minos, lived again. Because of this, as for a sin, Jove struck and burned his house with a thunderbolt, but because of his skill, and since Apollo was his father, put him among the constellations holding a snake.
Certain people have said that he holds the snake for the following reason. When he was commanded to restore Glaucus, and was confined in a secret prison, while meditating what he should do, staff in hand, a snake is said to have crept on to his staff. Distracted in mind, Aesculapius killed it, striking it again and again with his staff as it tried to flee. Later, it is said, another snake came there, bringing an herb in its mouth, and placed it on its head. When it had done this, both fled from the place. Where upon Aesculapius, using the same herb, brought Glaucus, too, back to life. And so the snake is put in the guardianship of Aesculapius and among the stars as well. Following his example, his descendants passed the knowledge on to others, so that doctors make use of snakes." [II.14]

The snake that is being wrangled by our mystery man is actually not part of the constellation Ophiuchus: it's a separate one named Serpens, which we will get to a little later on. Linked to Serpens, the constellation Ophiuchus wasn't known under that name in ancient Roman times, but took the title 'Serpentarius', which also means 'Snake-Holder', or 'Snake-Bearer'.

The Sun passes through the constellation between November 30 and December 17, which is why some astrologers consider Ophiuchus to be the thirteenth sign of the zodiac. It is, however, not included in most astrological zodiacs, and the saying confuses sign with constellation. The constellation is visible at latitudes between +80° and −80°, and best visible at 21:00 (9 p.m.) during the month of July.

Archaeologists have unearthed a cache of sixth-century coins in Phanagoria, an ancient Greek city located in what is today southwestern Russia. 80 copper staters—a type of Greek coin—were found in an amphora buried for centuries in the ashes of a calamitous fire, Artnet reported.

Researchers think they were stashed in the vessel prior to an attack, likely from the Huns or the Turks, that resulted in large sections of the city being torched. The discovery was announced by the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Archaeology. Archaeologist Vladimir Kuznetsov, who heads the institute’s now three-year-long Phanagoria dig, said in a statement:

“Treasures [like this] are not often found. As a rule, they are evidence of catastrophic events in people’s lives, as a result of which the one who hid money or valuable items was unable to return and use their savings. The very context of his find speaks of the extraordinary circumstances under which [the objects were] hidden, of the sudden attack of enemies. In a hurry, a resident of Phanagoria hid a bundle with 80 coins in the throat of an old broken amphora that had turned up under his arm and covered the hole with earth.”

The scientist and his team determined that the copper coins were likely minted in the late third or early fourth century, in the Bosporan Kingdom, but continued to circulate as cheaper alternatives to gold currency through to the sixth century.

They were pulled from a layer of debris where the remains of fire-damaged wooden floors, dishes, and a broken baptismal font have also been uncovered. The latter object suggests an early Christian basilica was destroyed in the conflagration.

In 2019, at the same site, Kuznetsov found an example of a gold coin made during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I, also lost in the debris of a sixth century fire.

With this month’s discovery, the researchers were able to conclude that there were actually two separate fires.

The first likely came about during a region-wide revolt against the Hunnic leader Gord in 528 or 534. The reason for the second, which scientists date to the second half of the century, is a mystery.

“The gold coin of Justinian I found two years ago in Phanagoria serves as proof that the new treasure is associated with the second, late fire of the sixth century. But who exactly—the [Huns] or the Turks—destroyed the capital of the Phanagorian diocese, remains unknown. The new treasure from Phanagoria is an invaluable evidence of historical events and the economy of the early Middle Ages.”

According to Hellenic mythology, the Olympic Games were founded by Herakles. It happened after he captured the Cretan Bull, the very same bull that got Pasiphaê, wife of Minos, pregnant with the Minotaur. There is an extended break between the completion of this labour and the start of the next, during which the Olympics came to be.

After capturing the bull, Herakles took some time to unwind, feast, and thank the Gods for all he had achieved so far. Chief amongst his accomplishments in his time off time period is the founding of the Olympic Games, which even Pausanias attributed to Herakles in the mythological retelling of the practice. He writes in his 'Description of Greece':

"Heracles of Ida, therefore, has the reputation of being the first to have held, on the occasion I mentioned, the games, and to have called them Olympic. So he established the custom of holding them every fifth year, because he and his brothers were five in number." [5.7.9]

Corroborating accounts come from, for example, Diodorus Siculus who writes:

"After the performance of this Labour Heracles established the Olympic Games, having selected for so great a festival the most beautiful of places, which was the plain lying along the banks of the Alpheius river, where he dedicated these Games to Zeus the Father. And he stipulated that he prize in them should be only a crown, since he himself had conferred benefits upon the race of men without receiving any monetary reward.

All the contests were won by himself without opposition by anyone else, since no one was bold enough to contend with him because of his exceeding prowess. And yet the contests are very different one from another, since it is hard for a boxer or one who enters for the “Pankration” to defeat a man who runs the “stadion,” and equally difficult for the man who wins first place in the light contests to wear down those who excel in the heavy. Consequently it was fitting that of all Games the Olympic should be the one most honoured, since they were instituted by a noble man." [4.14.1 - 4.14.2]

That said, of course there are a great many non-mythological accounts of how the Olympics came to be. My favorite, perhaps, is from Diodorus Siculus again, who writes a beautiful line between myth and his reality, speaking of the five Daktyloi, daimones who were appointed by Rhea to guard the infant God Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida in Krete and eventually established the Olympic Games in the age of Kronos. One of them was called Hēraklēs as well:

"Also the greater number of the gods who, because of their benefactions to all men alike, have been accorded immortal honours, had their origin, so their myths relate, in their land; and of the tradition regarding these gods we shall now give a summary account, following the most reputable writers who have recorded the affairs of Crete.

The first of these gods of whom tradition has left a record made their home in Crete about Mt. Idê and were called Idaean Dactyli. These, according to one tradition, were one hundred in number, but others say that there were only ten to receive this name, corresponding in number to the fingers (dactyli) of the hands.

But some historians, and Ephorus is one of them, record that the Idaean Dactyli were in fact born on the Mt. Idê which is in Phrygia and passed over to Europe together with Mygdon; and since they were wizards, they practised charms and initiatory rites and mysteries, and in the course of a sojourn in Samothrace they amazed the natives of that island not a little by their skill in such matters. And it was at this time, we are further told, that Orpheus, who was endowed with an exceptional gift of poesy and song, also became a pupil of theirs, and he was subsequently the first to introduce initiatory rites and mysteries to the Greeks.

However this may be, the Idaean Dactyli of Crete, so tradition tells us, discovered both the use of fire and what the metals copper and iron are, as well as the means of working them, this being done in the territory of the city of Aptera at Berecynthus, as it is called; and since they were looked upon as the originators of great blessings for the race of men, they were accorded immortal honours. And writers tell us that one of them was named Heracles, and excelling as he did in fame, he established the Olympic Games, and that the men of a later period thought, because the name was the same, that it was the son of Alcmenê who had founded the institution of the Olympic Games." [5.64.2 - 5.64.6]

No one knows who actually founded the first Olympics, so I'll take the mythical explanation of a hero named Herakles, who founded the Games to honor the Gods and receive blessings upon himself so he would be able to complete the coming labors.

A spectacular ancient mosaic floor that was part of a building from the Hellenistic period is among the important finds from excavations carried out recently at Fabrika Hill in Kato Paphos, Cyprus. Known to archaeologists as the “Acropolis of Paphos,” the Hill holds treasures that have been the focus of archaeologists from France’s University of Avignon for the past twelve years.

The finds unearthed at the site were presented to the Paphos Municipal Council recently by Claire Balandier, a professor of archaeology and ancient Greek history and head of the Archaeological Mission of the University of Avignon.

Balandier, who has served as chief of the archaeological expedition conducting excavations on site for more than a decade, told the authorities the Fabrika Hill area was considered the Acropolis of Paphos and still holds extremely important monuments from the ancient history of the area.

Phedonas Phedonos, the mayor of Paphos, thanked Professor Balandier in a statement for the important excavation work carried out in the last twelve years in this area by the French Archaeological Mission.

The announcement also noted that she even ranked the quarries that existed there as the “third most important, after the quarries of Petra in Jordan, and Sicily.”

During her presentation, Professor Balandier also pointed out that excavation work was especially difficult this past year due to the coronavirus, because no students were allowed into the area to help. “This year we are doing studies and cleaning,” she noted, “while at the same time the program is being prepared for next year.”

One of the more spectacular discoveries made in the dig is a room with a mosaic floor that had been part of a building from the Hellenistic period.

In another incredible twist, the archaeologists found that the building where the mosaics were found had been supplied with water from a clay pipe that is amazingly still preserved, in what Balandier called “very good condition.”

It is believed that the water came from the area of Tala. Unfortunately, the building appears to have been partially destroyed by later Roman-era construction projects, which even included the construction of a water pipeline and reservoirs.

Paphos Mayor Phedonos expressed his great gratitude to Professor Balandier, who, according to a report in the Cyprus Mail, has been coming to Paphos for 31 years and is fluent in Greek. He also thanked all the other foreign archaeological expeditions that have been conducting excavations in the city recently.

The University of Krakow, led by Professor Evdoxia-Papoutsi-Wladyka, who is of Greek descent, is currently conducting an excavation in Paphos’ ancient market.

A team from Australia’s University of Sydney, under the direction of Dr. Craig Barker, is another major player in the archeological operations ongoing in the Paphos area, with its discovery of an 8,000-seat theater there which was declared to be the largest Hellenistic theater ever found.