The underwater site of Qaitbay - Methods and techniques

The archaeological operation

Isabelle Hairy
Latest up-date May 2006

The archaeological adventure began in 1961 with the “discovery” of the site by the amateur Alexandrian archaeologist Kamel Abul Saadat. His research led to the intervention of the Egyptian Navy, which lifted, among other pieces, a colossal statue of a queen dressed as Isis. Then the site was rapidly explored by the British archaeologist Honor Frost, who submitted a detailed report concluding the necessity of a overall study of the sunken elements that she saw as the remains of the Pharos.

1 - Original drawing by Kamel Abul Saadat on the cadastral map, with a zoom on the Qaitbay site. (S. A. Morcos, “Early discoveries of submarine archaeological sites in Alexandria”, Underwater archaeology and coastal management, Focus on Alexandria, UNESCO, Paris, 2000, pl. 4)
2 - Photograph of the colossal statue of Isis lying on the quay of Alexandria’s eastern harbour. Lifted in 1962 by the Egyptian Navy, P.M. Fraser suggested that it might represent Isis Pharia. (Archives CEAlex)
3 - Plan drawn by Honor Frost in 1968 an annotated by the CEAlex.

After some 25 years of inactivity, the archaeological operation was restarted thanks to a vocal media campaign led by the filmmaker Asma el-Bakri. The site came into public view through a rather paradoxical situation. The creation of a breakwater of sunken concrete blocks to protect the mediaeval fortress was set to cover and destroy the presumed remains of the ancient Pharos. It was obviously this presumption that allowed for the opening of an underwater campaign.


Whether we are dealing with the Pharos or something else, when one talks of the origins of the sunken elements one comes back to the idea that at some time in the past, they were part of one or more constructions that have long since disappeared. This is the very subject of archaeology. Without this idea there would be no excavations. But what can we demonstrate today?
What were these constructions? To answer this question one must look at the frontier between before and after. When and why did these blocks find themselves dumped into the waters of the Mediterranean? What was there function before being, so to speak, drowned. Why were they cut by man, and indeed by which man, which civilisation?

Before all these questions, it is necessary to determine the “after”, that is to characterise the space in which these blocks lie, which means going back to studying their distribution, an indispensable preamble to attacking the question of datation. For this, several methods and techniques were employed on the 1.3 hectares that make up the site, and it is these that have defined the nature of the archaeological operation.

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