A fortuitous discovery before the Passover holiday by two divers in the ancient port of Caesarea has led to the revelation of a large, spectacular and beautiful ancient marine cargo of a merchant ship that sank there during the Late Roman period, about 1,600 years ago.
As soon as they emerged from the water, divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra‘anan of Ra‘anana contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority and reported the discovery and the removal of several ancient items from the sea.
A joint dive at the site together with IAA archaeologists revealed that an extensive portion of the seabed had been cleared of sand and the remains of a ship were left uncovered on the sea bottom: iron anchors, remains of wooden anchors and items that were used in the construction and running of the sailing vessel. An underwater salvage survey conducted in recent weeks with the assistance of many divers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and volunteers using advanced equipment discovered numerous items that had been part of the ship’s cargo.
Many of the artifacts are made of bronze and are in an extraordinary state of preservation: a bronze lamp depicting the image of the sun-god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, a lamp in the image of the head of an African slave, fragments of three life-size bronze-cast statues, objects fashioned in the shape of animals: a whale, and a bronze faucet in the shape of a wild boar with a swan on its head. Fragments of large jars were found that were used for carrying drinking water for the crew on the ship. One of the biggest surprises was the discovery of two metallic lumps composed of thousands of coins weighing about 45 lbs., Shaped like the pottery vessel in which they had been stored.
This discovery comes a year after the exposure by divers and the IAA of a treasure of gold Fatimid coins, which is currently on public display at the “Time Travel” presentations in Caesarea harbor.
According to Jacob Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dror Planer, deputy director of the unit, “These are extremely exciting finds, which, apart from their extraordinary beauty, are of historical significance. The location and distribution of the ancient finds on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated for recycling, and apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.”
A preliminary study of the iron anchors suggests there was an attempt to stop the drifting vessel before it reached shore by casting anchors into the sea; however, these broke – evidence of the power of the waves and the wind which the ship was caught up in.
Sharvit and Planer stress that “a marine assemblage such as this has not been found in Israel in the past thirty years. Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity. When we find bronze artifacts it usually happens at sea. Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process.” Sharvit and Planer added that, “in the many marine excavations that have been carried out in Caesarea only a very small number of bronze statues have been found, whereas in the current cargo a wealth of spectacular statues were found that had been in the city and were removed from it by way of the sea. The sand protected the statues; consequently they are in an amazing state of preservation – as though they were cast yesterday rather than 1,600 years ago.”
The coins that were discovered bear the image of the emperor Constantine who ruled the Western Roman Empire (312–324 CE) and was later known as Constantine the Great, ruler of the Roman Empire (324–337 CE); and of Licinius, an emperor who ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire and was a rival of Constantine, until his downfall in the 324 CE Battle of Adrianople that was waged between the two rulers. Following the battle at Adrianople, Constantine moved to besiege Byzantium.
According to Sharvit, “In recent years we have witnessed many random discoveries in the harbor at Caesarea. These finds are the result of two major factors: the absence of sand on the seabed causing the exposure of ancient artifacts, and an increase in the number of divers at the site. In this particular instance, the divers demonstrated good citizenship and are deserving of praise. They will be awarded a certificate of appreciation and invited to tour the storerooms of the National Treasures. By reporting the discovery of the marine assemblage to the IAA they have made it possible for all of us to enjoy these spectacular remains from antiquity.”
The Rothschild Caesarea Foundation is a major supporter of the conservation and development of the secrets of ancient Caesarea throughout the ages. The Israel Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Caesarea Development Corporation continue working intensively on major projects around the harbor. Michael Kersenti, director-general of the Caesarea Development Corporation, notes that the recent discoveries “reiterate the uniqueness of Caesarea as an ancient port city with a history and cultural heritage that continues to surprise us, as parts of the mysteries of its past are revealed in the sea and on land. These and the cultural treasures which will be discovered in the future will be made available for viewing by the numerous visitors who come to Caesarea each year.”