Egyptian Mysteries Revealed at VMFA

by | Jul 23, 2020 | MUSEUM & GALLERY NEWS

Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities opened at the VMFA July 1, giving visitors a glimpse into ancient cultural mixing and the world of underwater archaeology.

On July 1, 2020, as Virginia entered Phase 3 of its COVID-19 plan, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) opened its doors to visitors for the first time since March. VMFA members were welcomed to the Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities exhibit, which opened to the public on July 4, 2020. The exhibit explores the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, two important religious and cultural centers of Ptolemaic Egypt that sunk below the waters of the Mediterranean Sea more than a thousand years ago.

Curated by Franck Goddio, the director of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) and organized for VMFA by Dr. Peter Schertz, VMFA’s Jack and Mary Ann Frable Curator of Ancient Art, Sunken Cities is a treasure trove of more than 250 individual artifacts recovered from Aboukier Bay off the coast of Egypt by a team of underwater archaeologists led by Goddio.

The items reflect the incredible cultural mixing that occurred between Egypt and other civilizations in the ancient world, especially regarding religion and an annual fertility festival called the Mysteries of Osiris. Both Egyptian pharaohs and Persians ruled the Egyptian Empire between 600 and 400 BC, and Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 BC, facilitating interactions that produced a veritable renaissance of artistic, literary, and religious expression.

Though the incredible exhibition runs without a hitch now (allowing masked visitors to enter with timed tickets every half hour), its opening was delayed by about six weeks due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was the shipping of the exhibition items more difficult, but the expert handlers from Egypt and Europe, who would usually come to observe the installation, were no longer able to travel to the United States.

“Because the organizers were not here to actually oversee the installation, every time that we worked on a case or an object, we would send photographs over the internet, ask if it looked all right to them,” said Dr. Peter Schertz. “They would either approve it or say, ‘that looks good, but could you tweak it this way, or that way?’”

Schertz went on to describe how only those directly involved with the installation were allowed into the gallery space, and all of the art handlers at the VMFA wore gloves and masks throughout the entire installation process. However, sometimes the nature of the work required them to be closer than the recommended six-foot distance.

“When you’re installing fifteen objects in a case that’s about three feet long, and trying to adjust the heights of the mounts and the position of the objects, you’re not always able to social distance,” he said. “It was a little nerve-wracking.”

Statue of the Fertility God Hapy, 4th or 3rd century BC. Thonis-Heracleion, red granite, 5.4 m. high. Maritime Museum Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

The VMFA is taking precautions to make the experience less stressful for visitors, requiring everyone to wear masks and reminding them to keep six feet away from each other. For those who may not have their own mask, the museum provides one, free of charge. The flow of the museum has also been adjusted so that visitors enter through the main doors, but exit through a side door, attempting to prevent people from being in close proximity as much as possible.

All interactive elements of exhibitions at the VMFA are currently closed. In-person camps, programs, and events are cancelled for the foreseeable future. In lieu of these face-to-face experiences, the VMFA is posting video content and running a variety of classes and lectures via video conferencing platforms.

Despite these hurdles, the VMFA is working to allow as many people to see the Sunken Cities exhibit as possible, since this is the only stop the artifacts will make on the Eastern Seaboard, and their last stop before being returned to Egypt. When asked how the staff felt about having visitors in the museum again, the VMFA responded enthusiastically.

“Charged with the mission to enrich the lives of all through art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is the only art museum in the United States typically open 365 days a year. We recognize seeing and experiencing art firsthand makes more of an impact than digital platforms can. We were eager to welcome people back, to be excited and inspired by VMFA’s exhibitions and collection.”

An archaeologist checks the stele of Thonis-Heracleion raised under water on site in the city of Heracleion. Thonis-Heracleion, Aboukir Bay, Egypt (SCA 277), National Museum, Alexandria – IEASM Excavations. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

In response to a question about what he hoped visitors would leave the exhibition knowing, Dr. Peter Schertz laughed.

“I’m a curator, not a teacher, so I don’t necessarily want people to know a specific thing,” he explained. Instead, he said that he hoped visitors noticed three intertwining stories when exploring the exhibit. The first is the story of underwater archaeology and all of the challenges and excitement that go along with diving for ancient artifacts. The second is a narrative about the religious festival called the Mysteries of Osiris. Last is a story of cultural mixing; the art displayed in the exhibition shows a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles. No single artistic tradition dominates over another, but they intertwine in a beautiful tapestry of human expression. 

“At a time when we’re re-examining the concept of internationalism and globalism on many levels, I hope that people come out of this exhibition and think, ‘Something amazing happened when the Egyptian civilization intensely encountered the Greek and Roman civilizations. Something wonderful happened artistically and culturally. Something important for the world,’” Schertz said.

Not only does Schertz want visitors to know that there was incredible cultural exchange in the past, but he’d like to look towards the future as well.

“I think about our own world today and what kind of world we want tomorrow. And I hope people think, ‘Wow, cultural mixing can be really positive and great!’ I want people to reflect and realize that it’s not just a bunch of ancient stuff. It can inform our thinking about our society and our world.”

Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities is organized by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology with the generous support of the Hilti Foundation and in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt. To learn more and buy tickets for the exhibition, visit

Top Photo: Archeologist eye to eye to with a sphinx underwater. Granodiorite. H. 70, L 150 cm. 1st c. BC. National Museum, Alexandria (SCA 450) Alexandria Eastern Harbour. IEASM Excavation. The treatment of the face is characteristic of royal effigies blending the Pharaonic traditions with the Hellenistic portrait style. This Sphinx could be a portrait of the father of Cleopatra VII, the “great” Cleopatra, Ptolemy XII Auletes Neos Dionysos. Photo: Jérôme Delafosse © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Emilia Ruzicka

Emilia Ruzicka

Emilia is a data journalist and designer who splits her time between Richmond, VA and Providence, RI, where she is a senior at Brown University. She loves to tell stories of all kinds and is always excited by new projects and endeavors. See more info at or find her on twitter @EmiliaRuzicka.

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