1,800-year-old marble artifacts uncovered in shipwreck off Israeli coast

May 16, 2023 by Pesach Benson
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The discovery of the 1,800-year-old marble artifacts off the coast of Moshav Beit Yanai began with Gideon Harris, a swimmer who first spotted ancient columns on the seafloor.

Harris called the Israeli Antiquities Authority to report his find to a grateful Koby Sharvit, director of the Authority’s underwater archaeology unit.

An Israel Antiquities Authority diver examines an 1,800-year-old marble column discovered by a swimmer off the coast of Netanya. Photo by the Israel Antiquities Authority

The artifacts were part of a merchant ship that sank during a violent storm. The existence of the shipwrecked cargo had been known to Sharvit for some time but its exact location remained a mystery due to being buried under sand. Recent storms, however, exposed the artifacts, allowing the Antiquities Authority to begin a preliminary archaeological investigation.

The find sheds light on the architectural magnificence of ancient public buildings, with the cargo believed to be intended for a grand temple or theatre.

Weighing 44 tons, the cargo comprises various marble elements, including Corinthian capitals adorned with intricate vegetal patterns, partially carved capitals, and columns measuring up to six meters in length. The architectural pieces, originating from the Roman period, represent the oldest known sea cargo of its kind in the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to Sharvit, the ship carrying the cargo must have encountered a severe storm in shallow waters, leading to its ultimate demise near Beit Yanai, which is just north of Netanya.

Such sudden storms along the coast are known to cause shipwrecks due to limited maneuverability. Sharvit said the position and angle of the cargo on the seabed indicate the desperate efforts of the crew to prevent the ship from grounding by dropping anchor.

The size of the marble pieces suggests that the ship was a merchant vessel capable of carrying a cargo of at least 200 tons. Sharvit elaborated that these pieces were typically used in large-scale, awe-inspiring public buildings. Even in Roman Caesarea, similar architectural elements were created using local stone covered in white plaster to imitate marble. However, in this case, genuine marble was used.

The origin of the marble cargo was likely from the Aegean or Black Sea regions, potentially Turkey or Greece, Sharvit explained. Its discovery south of the port of Caesarea indicates that it was destined for a southern port such as Ashkelon or Gaza, or possibly even Alexandria in Egypt.

The uncovering of this cargo resolves a long-standing debate among archaeologists.  Land and sea archaeologists have argued over whether imported architectural elements from the Roman period were fully worked at their origin or transported in a partially carved state to be finished at their destination.

The Beit Yanai find confirms that the architectural elements left the quarry site either as raw material or partially worked artifacts. They were then fashioned and completed at the construction site, potentially by local artists or artisans or even by artists brought in from other regions, similar to specialised mosaic artists who travelled for commissioned projects.

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