For Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra’anan, two friends on a diving trip off of the Israeli coast, what began as a typical Mediterranean excursion took a stunning turn.
The two men spied a castaway sculpture sitting amid the rocks and silt on the seabed. This was no average oceanic detritus. The figure, it started to dawn on the divers, must have been ancient. Indeed, according to the archaeologists, it’s part of the largest cache of Roman objects to be found in Israel in 30 years.
“It took us a couple of seconds to understand what was going on,” Ra’anan told the Associated Press. The duo realized the sculpture wasn’t alone — this spot was rife with old items. They had found the remnants of a Roman merchant ship, lost at sea some 1,600 years ago near Caesarea, a harbor city perched on the Israeli coast roughly 30 miles north of Tel Aviv.
Recognizing the artifacts belonged in a museum, or were at the very least covered by Israel’s Law of Antiquities , the divers contacted the state-run Antiquities Authority. When the government archaeologists arrived at the site, what they beheld almost defied belief: a bronze lamp featuring Sol, the sun deity; several iron anchors; a statue of moon goddess Luna; jugs for drinking freshwater at sea; a whale figurine; and an item the Antiquities Authority described in a news release as a “bronze faucet in the form of a wild boar with a swan on its head.”
Perhaps the most surprising finds are two large masses of metal, thousands of coins clotted together in the ceramic jars that once held them. The 1,600-year-old coin clusters tip the scales at about 44 pounds. Based on the coins, the archaeologists have a rough idea of when the merchant ship sank. It was a time when the Roman Empire was on the cusp of Christianity. Some coins bear the visage of Constantine the Great, the ruler of the western half the Roman Empire who converted it into a new, holier-than-before version in the early 4th century. Other coins show Licinius, whom the Israel Antiquities Authority describes as Constantine’s rival Roman ruler to the east, who reigned from A.D. 324 to 337.
During the excavations over the past few weeks, the Israeli archaeologists have pieced together a scene of an ancient scramble to survive tumultuous seas. “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 harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks,” Jacob Sharvit and Dror Planer, directors of Israel Antiquities Authority’s Marine Archaeology Unit, said in a statement. The researchers think the Roman sailors attempted to anchor themselves, because the distance between the iron anchors and the other objects. But the anchor lines snapped, and the ship was dashed against the rocks.
The find is remarkable for two reasons, the archaeologists say. First, the objects are well-preserved and were only recently exposed on the ocean floor. Covered in a layer of sand, the figures and coins show little evidence of the nearly 2,000 years that have passed. And second, because the Romans frequently melted down metal statues to recast them anew, few such figures exist today.
The accident was, ultimately, the artifacts’ salvation. “Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship,” Sharvit and Dror said, “they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process.”