1,800-Year-Old Shipwreck Unveils Rare Marble Treasures in Israel

Three weeks back, while swimming 200 meters off the central beach town of Beit Yanai, a recreational sea swimmer named Gideon Harris dived about four meters and accidentally came across a 1,800-year-old treasure trove comprising marble columns.

Per Kobi Sharvit, the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist, the columns are part of about 44 tons of marble blocks that appear to be from the wreck of a vessel that had set sail for a Roman port — most likely Gaza or Ashkelon — to unload the precious cargo.

The IAA strongly believes that the sea-wrecked cargo — exposed amid winter storms, which brushed away several centuries of sand — is the oldest of its type known in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Marble Treasures
Image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Preliminary site explorations conducted underwater have discovered that the vessel’s hold included decorated Corinthian capitals, other semi-carved capitals, and a gigantic six-meter marble architrave or a door lintel.

From the size of architectural elements, we can easily calculate the vessel’s dimensions; we are talking about a merchant vessel that could bear a cargo of 200 tons (at least), explained Sharvit.

Sharvit, the director of the IAA’s underwater archaeology department, reportedly confirmed that there are no remains from the vessel on the sea bottom. He mentioned that the IAA would be launching an undersea excavation over the next week alongside students from the University of Rhode Island in the hope of discovering waterlogged wood from underneath the massive marble blocks or a close-by underwater dune that could have buried as well as preserved various parts of the vessel.

The site formation provides clues regarding where the vessel was sailing, per Sharvit. The huge marble slabs are placed in a particular fashion, mirroring how they might have been put on the ship’s hold. Based on the spread of these slabs, he believes the ship had weighed anchor as it was taking on water, probably during a storm on the coast.

Storms like these tend to blow up all of a sudden along the coast of the country, and due to the vessels’ limited manoeuvring potential; they are dragged into shallow waters and shipwrecked, explained Sharvit.

He added that from the sizes of architectural elements, one could calculate the vessel’s dimensions; we are talking about a merchant vessel that could carry at least 200 tons of cargo. The delicate pieces are characteristic of large-scale and majestic public structures. Even in Roman Caesarea, these architectural elements were made of local stones covered with white plaster to appear like marble. Here Sharvit was talking of genuine marble.

Since it is also possible that this marble cargo came from the Black or Aegean Sea region in Greece or Turkey, and since it was discovered south of the port of Caesarea, it seems that it was destined for one of the ports along the southern Levantine coast, Gaza or Ashkelon, or possibly Egypt’s Alexandria.

The swimmer’s find, Sharvit revealed, has led to resolving a long-lived research issue: Sea and land archaeologists have long been arguing whether the imported architectural elements from the Roman era were worked in the lands of the origin or if they had been transported in a semi-carved form, and were fashioned and carved at the site of destination.

The discovery of this cargo resolves this much-debated issue, as it is clear that the delightful architectural elements left the quarry site as merely primary raw material or partially worked-upon artefacts and that they were fashioned and finished on the construction site, either by local artisans or artists who were taken to the site from other nations, similar to specialist mosaic artists who would be travelling from one site to another following commissioned assignments.

References: Times of Israel, CBS News, Live Science, Miami Herald

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