July 25, 2023

A few weeks ago, Gideon Harris made a remarkable discovery while diving in the Mediterranean Sea near Israel. He came across marble columns approximately 1,800 years old, buried about 13 feet under the water. These are believed to have been part of a Roman merchant ship’s cargo, according to an announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Despite being aware of the shipwreck’s existence, its exact location had eluded the IAA until now.

Koby Sharvit, the head of the IAA’s marine archaeology division, credits recent storms for unveiling the hidden treasure and Harris’s timely report for confirming its whereabouts. The wealth of ancient artifacts likely hails from an area near Greece or Turkey. Sharvit speculates that the vessel was en route to Ashkelon, Gaza, or Alexandria when a storm hit, forcing the crew to drop the anchor to avoid running aground.

Among the discovered artifacts are ornate column capitals, varying in size and weight. Sharvit posits to Ruth Schuster of Haaretz that the ship might have been carrying two separate cargo for different buildings or destinations, as suggested by the different stages of completion of these capitals.

Divers measuring one of the columns in the shallow waters off the beach of Beit Yanai, Israel Israel Antiquities Authority

The marble material of these artifacts implies they were destined for a grand public structure, an interesting point considering even in the ancient port city of Roman Caesarea, architectural elements were typically made of local stone and then plastered white to mimic marble.

This discovery also sheds light on a long-debated question – whether architectural elements were completed at their origin or at their final destination. The evidence here suggests the former, as many of the unearthed columns were unfinished.

The Roman influence in the area began in 63 BCE when Pompey the Great dethroned the King of Judea. The columns discovered recently are believed to date back to the mid-second century C.E.

Researchers were excited to find that the columns were made from genuine marble. Israel Antiquities Authority

Israel’s Mediterranean coastline has been a hotspot for archaeological finds. A 1,600-year-old shipwreck with bronze artifacts was discovered in Caesarea National Park, about 35 miles north of Tel Aviv in 2016, while a 2,000-year-old Roman coin featuring zodiac signs was found in waters near Haifa this past summer.

The IAA, in collaboration with students from the University of Rhode Island, plans to conduct further excavations at the site, says Sharvit to Amanda Borschel-Dan of the Times of Israel. They hope to unearth more artifacts, possibly even coins from the era. Finding the shipwreck itself would be a significant find.

For his invaluable contribution, Harris, who reported the discovery to the IAA, was honored with a certificate of appreciation. His discovery is not just an addition to our knowledge of ancient Roman maritime trade routes, but also a testament to the spirit of public participation in preserving our shared human history.