Archaeologists sat by riverside excavation trenches.

The Harbour of Naukratis

Supported by

Honor Frost Foundation

Key project information

Duration

2012 – 2023

Contact details

Email: avilling@britishmuseum.org

Partners

Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (formerly Ministry of State for Antiquities)

Supported by

Honor Frost Foundation
British Academy – Reckitt Fund
Michela Schiff Giorgini Foundation

Fieldwork has revealed the river harbour and full extent of the ancient Egyptian port of Naukratis and the Mediterranean communities living there.

Located on the Canopic branch of the Nile river, Naukratis was established by the Saite Dynasty of Egypt at the end of the 7th century BC as a base for Mediterranean traders. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Naukratis once held a monopoly on all Mediterranean trade coming into Egypt.

Fieldwork undertaken in the late 19th and 20th centuries confirmed the presence of Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot, Phoenician and other populations at the site, however, the history and archaeology of Naukratis were misinterpreted. Reinvestigation of these earlier excavations by the Naukratis – Greeks in Egypt project indicated that further fieldwork was required to improve understanding of this important archaeological site. Following a successful initial survey, a larger fieldwork project was developed.

About the project

Naukratis (known today as Kom Geif) was rediscovered by Sir William Flinders Petrie in 1884 and then investigated by three teams in 1884–86, 1899–1903 and 1977–83. When the Naukratis – Greeks in Egypt project investigated these earlier excavations, it was discovered that:

  • The maps from these excavations could not be related to each other.
  • Large areas of the settlement remained unexplored.
  • The location of the river and harbour remained unknown.
  • The sampling strategies of previous excavators created a misleading bias in the data, impeding understanding of the origin and role of the people of Naukratis. 

To overcome these challenges, a new British Museum fieldwork survey at Naukratis was planned to complement the Naukratis – Greeks in Egypt project. The initial survey revealed greater than expected potential resulting in the seven fieldwork seasons which make up this project. A programme of topographical survey, geophysical prospection, geological auger survey, excavation and the study of the resulting artefacts, faunal and botanical remains was developed to examine three main objectives: 

  • To identify the chronological and geographical limits of the settlement and the location of all previous excavations at the site.
  • To locate the Nile channel and port area and to study shipping technology, maritime activities and harbour structures.
  • To assess the different communities at Naukratis, their origins, institutions and roles at the site. 

Aims

Before embarking on new excavations, this project aimed to:

  • Create an accurate topographic map of the site showing all natural and manmade features.
  • Investigate previously unexplored areas of the site with a geophysical survey (magnetometry).
  • Perform a geological (auger) and geophysical (resistivity) survey of the ancient river environment. 

Using survey findings, 38 trenches were excavated that targeted: 

  • Previously unexplored structures within the Egyptian sanctuary of Amun-Ra.
  • The Greek sanctuaries of the Dioskouroi and the Hellenion.
  • The riverfront and harbour. 

The British Museum fieldwork team trained Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities inspectors in all the techniques deployed. 

Excavations along the ancient river front uncovered harbour facilities, which had been missed by the 19th- and 20th-century excavations despite the crucial role of maritime trade for Naukratis. Over 42,000 man-made objects were discovered, including rare ships’ planks and figurines dedicated to Greek and Egyptian gods. 

The results from this project will be published in an edited volume Naukratis − Egypt's Cosmopolitan Port City: British Museum Excavations 2012–2019, which will be made freely available online. 


 

Conclusion

This project has uncovered new evidence to aid understanding of the ancient port site of Naukratis. Following extensive geophysical surveys the first accurate map of Naukratis has been produced, correlating all previous archaeological discoveries at the site. The limits and layout of the ancient city are now known.

The Canopic river, which has moved over time, has been mapped for all periods during Naukratis’ long occupation. It is clear now that the river was deep and wide enough for Mediterranean ships to sail along directly to Naukratis. Excavations on the riverfront have revealed well-preserved ship hull fragments from these sea-going Mediterranean ships. This means that the maritime technologies that facilitated Mediterranean trade with Egypt can now be studied in parallel with comparable Mediterranean sites.

Excavations in Egyptian and Greek sanctuaries have provided valuable contextual information about the activities that these different communities took part in. Furthermore, analysis of complete archaeological assemblages (groups of artefacts) alongside faunal and botanical remains helps to better explain the historical development of Naukratis, its relationship with the rest of Egypt and the Mediterranean world between the 7th century BC to the 7th century AD. 

Meet the team

Ross Thomas headshot

Ross Iain Thomas

Principal Investigator and Mission Director    
Department of Greece and Rome
British Museum

Alexandra Villing headshot

Alexandra Villing

Co-Investigator and Assistant Director
Department of Greece and Rome
British Museum

Acknowledgements

Project supporter

Project supporters

Supported by

Logo for the Honor Frost Foundation featuring a line drawing of a ship at sea and text displaying 'supporting maritime archaeology in the eastern Mediterranean'.

British Academy – Reckitt Fund

Outputs

Egypt's cosmopolitan port city: British Museum excavations 2012–2019

BOOK

This volume will publish in full the results of the seven field seasons of survey and excavation by the British Museum at Naukratis (2012–2019), which have identified its layout and limits, located the river harbour and assessed the origins, institutions and roles of different Naukratis communities. 

Book editors: Ross Thomas; Alexandra Villing 

Due to be published in 2022/2023

Paleoenvironmental surveys at Naukratis and the Canopic branch of the Nile

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Benjamin T. Pennington; Ross Thomas

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7, 180–8

Published in 2016

The site of Naukratis: topography, buildings and landscape

ESSAY

Alexandra Villing; Ross Thomas

Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt. British Museum Online Research Catalogue

Published in 2015

Naukratis, ‘Mistress of ships’ in context

BOOK CHAPTER

Ross Thomas

Published in 2015

Roman Naukratis in its Alexandrian context

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Ross Thomas

British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 21, 193–218

Published in 2014

Geophysical survey at ancient Naukratis, Egypt

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Kristian Strutt; Ross Thomas

The Newsletter of the International Society for Archaeological Prospection 39, 3–5

Published in 2014

Naukratis revisited 2012: integrating new fieldwork and old research

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Ross Thomas; Alexandra Villing

British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 20, 81–125

Published in 2013