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Rare 1,800-year-old Roman-era marble cargo discovered by Israeli swimmer

Discovery represents first-of-its-kind find in eastern Mediterranean

An Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist inspects pieces of 1,800-year-old marble from a shipwreck off the shore of Beit Yanai in central Israel. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit)

A rare, enormous cargo of 1,800-year-old marble artifacts has been discovered in the coastal waters north of Netanya in Israel’s northern-central region. This is the first cargo of its kind known to come from the eastern Mediterranean.

The cargo weighed about 44 tons, and included Corinthian capitals adorned with floral patterns, partially carved capitals, and marble columns up to 6 meters (approx. 20 ft.) long. The valuable architectural elements were apparently intended to adorn an elaborate public building, such as a temple or a theater.

The ship’s cargo, which included huge 1,800-year-old, Roman period marble architectural elements, was discovered in the sea about 200 meters (660 ft.) from the coastline of Beit Yanai, about 4 miles north of Netanya.

Gideon Harris, an experienced sea swimmer, discovered the artifacts while swimming off the coast. He contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and reported seeing ancient columns while swimming at the Beit Yanai beach.

Part of 1,800-year-old marble column from a shipwreck off the shore of Beit Yanai in central Israel. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit)

Koby Sharvit, director of the underwater archaeology unit at the IAA, said, “We have been aware of the existence of this shipwrecked cargo for a long time, but we didn’t know its exact whereabouts as it was covered over by sand, and we could therefore could not investigate it.”

He said recent storms apparently stirred up the seabed, uncovering the artifacts.

“The recent storms must have exposed the cargo, and thanks to Harris’ important report, we have been able to register its location, and carry out preliminary archaeological investigations, which will lead to a more in-depth research project.”

Due to the position of the site formation and angle of the cargo on the seabed, it is evident that the ship bearing the cargo was wrecked during a storm. Because they were in the shallow waters, the ship’s crew apparently dropped anchor in a desperate effort to prevent the ship from grounding.

Sharvit said Israel’s coast is often subject to storms without much warning.

“Such storms often blow up suddenly along the country’s coast and, due to the ship’s limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked.”

According to Sharvit, the ship was likely a large merchant ship which was able to carry such massive pieces of marble.

“From the size of the architectural elements, we can calculate the dimensions of the ship,” commented Sharvit. “We are talking about a merchant ship that could bear a cargo of at least 200 tons,” he said.

The IAA said the discovery helps resolve a long-debated issue, whether the Romans imported architectural elements partially or as fully complete pieces.

“Land and Sea archaeologists have long argued whether the Roman period imported architectural elements were completely worked in their lands of origin, or whether they were transported in a partially carved form and were carved and fashioned at their site of destination,” Sharvit said.

“The find of this cargo resolves the debated issue, as it is evident that the architectural elements left the quarry site as basic raw material or partially worked artifacts and that they were fashioned and finished on the construction site, either by local artists and artisans or by artists who were brought to the site from other countries.”

The marble pieces are genuine marble, probably from Turkey or Greece. Sharvit explained that they were “destined for one of the ports along the southern Levantine coast, Ashkelon or Gaza, or possibly even Alexandria in Egypt.”

“These fine pieces are characteristic of large-scale, majestic public buildings,” Sharvit noted. “Even in Roman Caesarea, such architectural elements were made of local stone covered with white plaster to appear like marble. Here we are talking about genuine marble.”

Harris was awarded a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship in reporting the significant find.

“Gideon’s report epitomizes the value of a citizen’s awareness regarding antiquities, and even more the importance of reporting them to the Israel Antiquities Authority,” said IAA Director Eli Escusido.

Anyone who finds artifacts should “note the exact location and to call us,” Escusido  affirmed.

“This provides invaluable information contributing to the history and cultural heritage of the country.”

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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