Divers find huge trove of statues, coins in 1,600-year-old shipwreck
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Divers find huge trove of statues, coins in 1,600-year-old shipwreck

In ‘biggest find in 30 years,’ archaeologists rescue rare bronze figures of gods, animals, that sank off Caesarea along with ship carrying metal for recycling

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Two recreational divers discovered a 1,600 year-old shipwreck on the seabed off the coast of Israel, leading to a salvage operation which uncovered one of the largest caches of marine artifacts ever found, antiquities officials revealed Monday.

The hoard was discovered off the coast of Caesarea, a major Roman-era seaport, sometime last month, the Israel Antiques Authority said in a statement, calling the find the most extensive underwater discovery in 30 years.

Pieces brought to the surface included a bronze lamp depicting the image of the sun god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, a lamp in the image of the head of an African slave, fragments of three life-size bronze cast statues, objects fashioned in the shape of animals such as a whale, and a bronze faucet in the form of a wild boar with a swan on its head, the IAA said.

Fragment of jars the crew had used to store drinking water were also found.

Experts believe the finds came from a large merchant ship carrying metal slated for reuse when it ran into a storm near the harbor and smashed into the seawall and rocks.

A figurine of the moon goddess Luna as discovered on the seabed at the site of the ancient sea port of Caserea, Israel. (Ran Feinstein)
A figurine of the moon goddess Luna as discovered on the seabed at the site of the ancient sea port of Caserea, Israel. (Ran Feinstein)

“A preliminary study of the iron anchors suggests there was an attempt to stop the drifting vessel before it reached shore by casting anchors into the sea; however, these broke – evidence of the power of the waves and the wind which the ship was caught up in,” the statement said.

Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra‘anan of Ra’anana were diving at the site of the ancient harbor in the Caesarea National Park before the recent Passover holiday in April when they noticed that shifting sand had exposed the remains of a ship and its contents.

The divers, Ran Feinstein, right, and Ofer Ra‘anan after the discovery. (The Old Caesarea Diving Center)
The divers, Ran Feinstein, right, and Ofer Ra‘anan after the discovery. (The Old Caesarea Diving Center)

The pair immediately contacted the IAA, which sent down archaeologists to take a look.

To their delight, the team spotted “iron anchors, remains of wooden anchors and items that were used in the construction and running of the sailing vessel,” the authority said.

Feinstein and Ra‘anan will be Awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by the IAA and given a personal tour of the IAA’s storerooms as a reward for their good citizenry.

A 1,600 year-old ship’s anchor as it was discovered in the sea at the site of the ancient sea port at Caesarea, Israel, April 2016. (The Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
A 1,600-year-old ship’s anchor as it was discovered in the sea at the site of the ancient sea port at Caesarea, Israel, April 2016. (The Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Jacob Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Dror Planer, deputy director of the unit, dated the ship to sometime during the Late Roman Period or 3rd-4th century CE.

In the weeks following the discovery by Ra‘anan and Feinstein, IAA divers along with volunteers carried out an underwater salvage survey and by using specialized equipment were able to find and recover many items from the cargo.

Rare bronze artifacts discovered in at the site of the ancient sea port in Caesarea, Israel, April 2016. (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
Rare bronze artifacts discovered in at the site of the ancient seaport in Caesarea, Israel, April 2016. (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The bronze statues are particularly rare; slated to be melted down, they instead sank and were preserved by the seawater.

“In the many marine excavations that have been carried out in Caesarea only very small number of bronze statues have been found, whereas in the current cargo a wealth of spectacular statues were found that were in the city and were removed from it by way of sea. The sand protected the statues; consequently they are in an amazing state of preservation – as though they were cast yesterday rather than 1,600 years ago,” the IAA said.

Lumps of coins discovered in the sea at the site of the ancient sea port of Caesarea, Israel, April 2016. (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
Lumps of coins discovered in the sea at the site of the ancient sea port of Caesarea, Israel, April 2016. (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Also discovered were two lumps, together weighing 20 kilograms, composed of thousands of coins that had retained the shape of the long disintegrated pottery vessel in which they were being transported.

“The coins that were discovered bear the image of the emperor Constantine who ruled the Western Roman Empire (312–324 CE) and was later known as Constantine the Great, ruler of the Roman Empire (324–337 CE), and of Licinius, an emperor who ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire and was a rival of Constantine, until his downfall in a battle that was waged between the two rulers,” the IAA said.

Last year a treasure trove of Fatimid gold coins was found in the sea at Caesarea.

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