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Athena Review: Recent Finds in Archaeology

Alexandria, Egypt: Discovery of Napoleon's Lost Fleet

On May 19, 1798 the French general Napoleon Bonaparte, in a typically ambitous campaign which was designed, ultimately, to conquer British India, set sail for Egypt with a fleet of 350 ships and 50,000 men. Among these were many artists and scientists who recorded Egypt’s ancient ruins and inscriptions. Their monumental written and illustrated report, Description de l’Egypte, was one of the lasting legacies of this expedition, as was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which led to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Napoleon’s plans of conquering Egypt, however, were short-lived. Disembarking at Alexandria, French forces took the city with apparent ease on July 2, 1798 and three weeks later entered Cairo. Then, on August 1, 1798, after a summer of searching, British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, commanding 14 gunships, found Napoleon’s fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, Egypt, about 10 miles from Alexandria.

In the fight which followed, known as the Battle of the Nile, several French ships including Napoleon’s flagship L’Oriente were sunk. A massive loss of life ensued, and the French Empire received its worst defeat to date. Within a year, French forces, suffering from disease and lack of morale, were under severe pressure from Egyptian troops. Napoleon ingloriously fled back to France, leaving many of his men to die.

[Fig.1: Stack of cannonballs in Aboukir Bay near Alexandria, from the deck of a French ship sunk in 1798 (photo: Christoph Gerigk/DCI).]

Two hundred years later, underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio led excavators in the exploration of the ill-fated fleet’s resting place. As part of an extensive project examining the ancient harbor of Alexandria, they have located many artifacts and learned new information on the battle itself.

Concentrating on the flagship L’Orient, a ship of 15 tons with 120 cannons on its four decks, researchers have now determined that two massive explosions caused its sinking, rather than one as previously thought. Further survey around the flagship has recovered seven anchors, allowing archaeologists to map the dispersion of the fleet relative to the position of L’Orient. The remains of two frigates, the Serieuse (the smallest vessel of Napoleon’s fleet) and the Artemise, have also been identified.

Artifacts found by divers (figs.1,2) include cannons and smaller firearms, swords, navigational instruments, plus eating utensils and other personal objects. In addition, thousands of lead typefaces belonging to Napoleon’s printing press aboard L’Orient were brought to the surface. Other abundant finds included French and Austrian coins of gold, silver, and copper, dating mainly from the late 18th century reign of Louis XVI, but some from as far back as the 17th century Louis XIV. Other coins from Malta, the Ottoman Empire, Venice, and Spain indicate that the ships may have been carrying a Maltese treasure that Napoleon is known to have captured prior to reaching Egypt.

All artifacts are being held in Egypt by the Supreme Council for Egyptian Antiquities, but are being prepared for international exhibition. A documentary on the fleet’s discovery will also premiere on the Discovery Channel, Sunday August 29th at 9 PM. A well-illustrated companion book to the show, Napoleon’s Lost Fleet: Bonaparte, Nelson, and the Battle of the Nile edited by Laura Foreman, is available at most bookstores.

[Fig.2: A cannon has become heavily encrusted during its 200 years submerged under water (photo: Christoph Gerigk/DCI).]

Franck Goddio, the head of Underwater Archaeology and Discovery Ltd. based in Liechtenstein, is also noted for discovering Alexandria’s submerged Ptolemaic palace area in 1996, including the royal quarter of Cleopatra (AR 1,3). His project at Aboukir Bay continues work which was begun at the site in 1983 by Jacques Dumas.


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