Swimmer finds ancient Roman treasure off Israel’s coast

Thousands of years ago there was an active route of ships sailing between Europe and the Holy Land on the Mediterranean Sea. Here are there sea storms wiped out ships along with their contents before they reached shore. Treasure seekers still find surprising troves of ancient goods deep down under the sea.

In Beit Yanai, a small coastal village north of Netanya, a swimmer uncovered an enormous and rare cargo that sank in the sea. The 1800-year old marble columns were transported on a merchant ship from the Roman era and didn’t make. 

This is the first cargo shipment of its kind known in the Eastern Mediterranean and included 44 tons of Corinthian capitals adorned with plant motifs; partially carved capitals, and marble columns up to 6 meters long never made to Israel’s shores. These valuable architectural pieces were meant for a temple or a theatre but a storm stopped the shipment. 

The treasure was only about 200 meters from the seashore and was found by a man named Gideon Harris, while swimming out in the sea. 

The Israel Antiquity Authorities announced that they’d known about the cargo for some time but had lost track of its exact location. Then they sent marine archeologists: “The recent storms must have exposed the cargo, and thanks to Gideon’s important report, we have been able to register its location, and carry out preliminary archaeological investigations, which will lead to a more in-depth research project,” says Koby Sharvit, Director of the underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority.  

From the position the site formation and angle of the cargo on the seabed, it is evident that the ship bearing the cargo was wrecked after the ship’s crew encountered a storm in the shallow waters, and dropped anchor in a desperate effort to prevent the ship from grounding: “Such storms often blow up suddenly along the country’s coast,” says Sharvit, “and due to the ships’ limited manoeuvring potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked.”

“From the size of the architectural elements, we can calculate the dimensions of the ship; we are talking about a merchant ship that could bear a cargo of at least 200 tons,” he adds. “These fine pieces are characteristic of large-scale, majestic public buildings. Even in Roman Caesarea, such architectural elements were made of local stone covered with white plaster to appear like marble.

“Here we are talking about genuine marble.”

The marble marble cargo likely came from the Aegean or Black Sea region, in Turkey or Greece, and since it was discovered south of the port of Caesarea, it seems that it was destined for one of the ports along the southern Levantine coast, Ashkelon or Gaza, or possibly even Alexandria in Egypt, the Authority body reports.

The finding resolves some old questions: Land and Sea archaeologists have long argued whether the Roman period imported architectural elements were completely worked in their lands of origin, or whether they were transported in a partially carved form, and were carved and fashioned at their site of destination.

The find of this cargo resolves the issue, as it is evident that the architectural elements left the quarry as basic raw material or partially worked artifacts and that they were fashioned and finished on the construction site, either by local artists and artisans or by artists who were brought to the site from other countries, similarly to specialist mosaic artists who traveled from site to site following commissioned projects. 

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