Swimmer Finds Huge Roman Shipwreck Loaded With Marble Off Israel’s Coast – Again

The authorities knew for years about the wreck off Beit Yanai but didn’t know how extraordinary its cargo was

By Ruth Schuster, HAARETZ

Huge columns of the finest white marble found on the seafloor by Israel from 1,800 years agoCredit: The underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority

Having a nice springtime swim off the central Israeli coast as he does every morning, Gideon Harris saw huge stone columns lying on the seabed. He did the right thing and called the authorities, who were monumentally unsurprised.The Israel Antiquities Authority had known for years about the ancient shipwreck off Bait Yanai, a moshav (agricultural community) six kilometers north of Netanya. They even assumed it was from Roman times and knew that it bore a cargo of marble items.

But they didn’t know exactly where it lay, let alone how important it was, says Koby Sharvit, director of the underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“It had been discovered several times in the past, mainly by lifeguards and fishermen,” he says. “But we didn’t know how big it was.”

A small but complete capital for a column, only a few tons in weight Credit: The underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority

Why didn’t they check in all this time? Well, nobody does casual marine archaeology, Israel has a lot of antiquities, and the seabed isn’t some placid wonderland.

“The seabed is dynamic. Sand constantly moves,” Sharvit says, noting how more people swim in the warmer months, so there are more chances to notice stuff. “Sometimes, during storms, the sand moves a bit and reveals the wreck, but then it comes back and covers everything again.”

But about three weeks ago, a storm revealed the whole thing on the seabed, for the greater edification of Harris.

“He called us and described how while swimming he saw huge ancient columns in the water. We came straight over to do an archaeological survey,” Sharvit says. Much of the cargo was, suddenly completely exposed at about 4 meters deep, just 13 feet.

A capital of the finest marble found off Bait Yanai, again.Credit: The underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority

Unfinished work

Initial observation indicates that the ship sailed and sank about 1,800 years ago, the archaeologists say, based on the style and typology of the columns and capitals, as well as on a comparison with Roman-period structures in Israel and beyond.

“The Corinthian capitals [tops of columns] are a type we know from CaesareaAshkelon and Beit She’an from the Roman period,” Sharvit says. “Looking at the big picture of all the products in the ship, we see it was a cargo of precious white marble that must have been imported to Israel.”

Israel has limestone but it doesn’t have marble, and the best Roman structures featured that stone – when they could. In Caesarea up the coast, there are Roman structures containing ratty local kurkar and limestone gussied up with plaster to emulate marble, Sharvit says.

Yes, somebody seems to have been faking marble. But the stuff in the ship was the real thing, and it fits the second or third century, the Roman period.

Lab analysis of the stone will be able to nail down its origin – each piece of marble has a local chemistry; for now the researchers are assuming it came from Turkey or possibly even Greece, Sharvit says. Next week students will be arriving from the University of Rhode Island, as they usually do every year, to assist in the underwater investigation

The pieces found off Bait Yanai weigh as much as 12 tons apieceCredit: The underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority

To nail down the date too, hopefully organic remains can be found among the marble, though maybe not what you’re thinking. Perhaps something like wooden beams can be found; they would then be radiocarbon-dated. With any luck the researchers might find ceramics that survived the ages and are typical of a time; they might even find a coin. It isn’t a dream: About a year ago diving archaeologists found a rare coin bearing signs of the zodiac off Israel’s shore.

The antiquities authority notes that this is the first time a ship bearing tons of partially and completely finished marble magnificence has been found in our neck of the Mediterranean woods.

And the find at Beit Yanai answers another question: Did the Romans in Israel import finished products or raw stone?

We’ve seen in other work that glass throughout the Roman world originated in raw glass made in Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Why? Because we have suitable sand, and finished glass is a monster to ship, at least if you want it in one piece.

But marble is another story, and shipping raw unfinished marble involves sending very heavy pieces over the sea.

The pieces were dated based on their style and comparison with existing Roman works in IsraelCredit: The underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority

The cargo included small capitals a mere few tons in weight that were superbly finished, and the material for big ones that would have been finished at their destination, Sharvit says.

“It’s possible – likely even – that we have a double cargo: One ship carrying cargo for two separate buildings or destinations,” he says. “The small capitals may have been for a smaller building and their carving was finished. The big capitals are still quite raw. The shape is there but they’re not done.”

Wondrously, the researchers even found an architrave, a decorative stone upper beam that would rest on columns. Among the most famed are the architraves in the Parthenon in Athens.

“We found pieces meters long, possibly part of a frieze. Those items were finished too,” Sharvit says. This wasn’t for somebody’s farmstead – these were items for grand public buildings.

Was this ship unusually large? Not at all, probably medium-sized, the archaeologists suggest based on the work so far. Maybe it was about 200 tons, based on a back-of-the-napkin calculation that the cargo totaled about 45 tons, Sharvit says.

Around 44 to 45 tons of marble lie on the seabed. The ship is estimated to have been medium-sizedCredit: The underwater archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority

When you’re sending pieces weighing as much as 12 tons each by sea, you have to load the boat carefully so it’s balanced. And the find off the coast indicates that the columns were laid one next to the other, which suggests the ship’s width.

“We assume it was a highly specific style of ship that transported such huge items,” Sharvit says.

A ship with cargo like that needs expert unloading too, at a proper port. Where might it have been heading?

Not to Beit Yanai, which wasn’t a port, but it may have been heading for next-door Caesarea. The only snag with that theory is that Beit Yanai is south of Caesarea, against the prevailing currents.

So the theory is that it was heading to Caesarea and got blown off course, or to a more southerly port like Ashkelon or Gaza. Or maybe even it was on its way to Alexandria in Egypt and got dead lost and sank – in shallow water to boot.

All the signs point to a storm that forced the ship into shallow waters, and that was the end of that story until Gideon Harris went swimming after that storm last month. For his part, he was awarded a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.

May 15, 2023 | Comments »

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