Text by Oliver Jarvis
Images by various contributors
Divers stumble on an extraordinary find in Israel – a Roman shipwreck loaded with artefacts!
FOR OVER 200 YEARS the most extensive political and social structure in Western civilisation, the Roman Empire, dominated the land and seas of the Western world. But like all great empires, it grew too vast. Over the many years of its decline, territory was stolen and land broken up like puzzle pieces, and its once great architecture, objects and emperors sank into ruin, and lay waiting to be discovered...
ACCIDENTAL UNDERWATER ARCHAEOLOGY
Ran Feinstein and Ofer Raanan had no idea that a routine dive would lead them to uncover the largest assemblage of Roman marine artefacts to be recovered in the past 30 years – marine cargo of an ancient merchant ship. They were diving in the ancient port of Caesarea, in Caesarea National Park, one of four past-Roman colonies in the Syria-Phoenicia region, located on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
Having dived here many times, Raanan and his buddy had never found anything like this before.
During the dive the pair thought nothing more of the first sculpture they saw on the seabed when they found it, but then they came across a second. Realising it was something special, they brought it to the surface and contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) – a body of the Israeli government that regulates excavation and conservation.
A routine dive would lead them to uncover the largest assemblage of Roman marine artefacts to be recovered in the past 30 years
Later, the IAA dived the site, recovering what was believed to be marine cargo of an ancient merchant ship that sank during the Late Roman period, around 1,600 years ago. Once an extensive portion of the seabed had been cleared of sand, the remains of the sunken ship could be seen peeping through the substrate. Iron anchors, remains of wooden anchors and items that were used in the construction and running of the sailing vessel were recovered. An underwater salvage survey conducted earlier this month, using advanced equipment, discovered numerous items that would have been part of the Roman ship’s cargo.
“These are extremely exciting finds,” said Jacob Sharvit, Director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the IAA, “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, which apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbour and drifted until it smashed into the sea wall and the rocks.”
Many of the artefacts discovered are still in great condition: 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. With life-size bronze cast statues, and objects fashioned in the shape of animals such as a whale, it’s a discovery that continues to drive the IAA’s exploration of the ancient Caesarea harbour. Only a year before, treasure of 2,000 gold Fatimid coins had been discovered by divers and the IAA.
CAESAREA: A RICH REPOSITORY OF HISTORY
“In recent years we have witnessed many random discoveries in the harbour at Caesarea,” said Sharvit. “These finds are the result of two major factors: a lack of sand on the seabed causing the exposure of ancient artefacts, and an increase in the number of divers at the site.”
Built between 22 BC and 10 BC, Caesarea was to become a major port in the Mediterranean Sea, hosting the standard “recreational activities” that the Romans are famous for: Bathhouses, amphitheatres and glorious temples were all constructed for the residents to enjoy.
Once an extensive portion of the seabed had been cleared of sand, the remains of the sunken ship could be seen peeping through the substrate
Caesarea was a place that began to boom, and stood as the largest port on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
But in a seaside town that is delicately resting on the low-lying beaches of the Mediterranean, the risk of being washed away is always going to be a faint concern for those residing there. At some point in time the port sank; whether this was due to seismic activity that tilted down the structures and caused them to settle into the seabed, or a tsunami flooded the shores, scientists cannot confirm.
This latest discovery is bound to ignite the imaginations of those underwater explorers keen to uncover further artefacts that may well be hidden away around the port, as well as give us a more informed view into the Roman history of the eastern Mediterranean.
For recreational divers, it’s an exciting opportunity – the chance to dive into ancient history.
ABOVE A treasure trove of devotional statues and other artefacts–one of the most exciting finds in decades!
LEFT The remains are believed to be from a cargo ship that sank some 1,600 years ago BELOW The recovered artifacts are still in excellent condition, though experts have speculated they may have been on their way to be recycled!
LEFT Divers Ray Feinstein and Ofer Raanan display some of the artifacts they played a key role in discovering ABOVE A hoard of Roman coins fused together after hundreds of years at the bottom of the ocean