The drone of a massive underwater vacuum cleaner pierces the silence at one of Israel’s most picturesque locations, a calm lagoon at Dor Beach where small, sandy islands poke out of clear Mediterranean waters.
Just two meters below the surface, a dozen archaeologists, students, and volunteers in full scuba gear are crawling around the sea bottom like ants, meticulously combing through sand using an underwater dredger. With their giant vacuum, they carefully uncover pieces of pottery and wood from a ship that sank here more than 3,000 years ago.
“After 120 years of scientific archaeology on land, maybe 130 years, we’re in a situation where we know a lot about what happened on land, but we know very little about what’s under the sea,” said Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau, the director of the University of Haifa’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies.
The University of Haifa’s School of Archaeology and Maritime Cultures is Israel’s only underwater archaeology certification program. Since 2012, it’s been offered in English to international students, and around 20 students are graduating this summer.
“Every single thing that we excavate provides so much new information,” Yasur-Landau enthused. “Every ship is a time capsule. It’s a capsule of our material culture, what was traded and the different commercial connections, and also what the environment was like back then.”
In May, Yasur-Landau oversaw the first excavations of two shipwrecks in the Dor Beach lagoon, one from the Persian period, from around 550 BCE, and one from the Iron Age, around 1000 BCE. During the three-week dive season, they uncovered pieces of pottery from 3,000 years ago and are trying to determine if they’ve discovered the infrastructure for an early port or just the detritus of old shipwrecks, Yasur-Landau said. In the fall, they will dive again for another three-week season to try to explore the ruins further.
Israel has always been a hub for marine activity, from the first Mediterranean fishing villages dating from around 10,000 BCE to ancient Roman ports like Caesarea to the ships filled with Jewish refugees trying to evade the British blockade after WWII.
But excavating items and ships that sank to the sea floor thousands of years ago is a much more complicated process than excavating an archaeological site on land. It’s also far more expensive, requiring boats, sand dredgers, scuba equipment, and a highly trained team with a very specific skill set.
Researchers still must carry out the same archaeological practices of meticulous documentation and excavation, layer by layer, but all while underwater, wearing bulky scuba gear, and fighting currents, waves, and tides — and the occasional curious fish and small jellyfish. Recent technological improvements, including underwater photography that can create 3D modeling and provide a record to study on dry land, have made underwater excavations slightly more accessible.
Under the sea, your straw mat will live forever
“Our main goal is trying to understand the lives of people throughout history, and the different types of adaptations, the economic, the social, the cultural ways they adapted to different environmental conditions,” said Yasur-Landau. “Why is this relevant? Because we see processes that start in ancient times and continue to today.”
Manmade stress to coastal ecosystems, a rising sea level, population crowding, political problems that lead to economic issues – these are all matters that residents of Israel’s coast have been dealing with for thousands of years, and continue to be exceptionally relevant today, Yasur-Landau noted. Maritime trade still accounts for more than 90 percent of Israel’s imports.
“Here we have an archaeological record under the water of the 11,000 years from the time people started to live in villages and in permanent settlements until yesterday,” he added. “So we can create a very long narrative of 11,000 years of how people are living along the sea and how cultures are interacting with the sea.”
The University of Haifa program combines maritime and coastal excavation, since coastal villages and ports are so closely intertwined with the sea. Additionally, changing sea levels over time means some areas now submerged in water were once dry land and have remains of coastal villages.
But while underwater conditions are challenging, they’re also exceptionally good at preserving things that are nearly impossible to find on land, including organic materials such as wood, ropes, and straw mats.
Sand creates an anaerobic environment, which means that something covered in sand has little to no oxygen. Because exposure to oxygen causes organic materials to decompose, when items are in an anaerobic environment, they stay intact for much longer.
Yasur-Landau has found pieces of Byzantine-era straw mats, basketry, and twined ropes from around 300-600 CE. These types of items are rarely found on land and provide an important window into the daily lives of people from the past.
Another benefit of underwater archaeological sites — which are usually under a meter or more of sand — is that they are rarely disturbed by human intervention, unlike Israel’s thousands of archaeological sites on land, where looting is a serious issue.
Praying to Poseidon
Students interested in studying marine archaeology should have basic scuba qualifications, but Yasur-Landau said they’re not looking for highly trained frogmen. Many of the dive sites are fairly shallow, such as the excavation at Dor Beach, which is only 2 to 4 meters deep. It’s more important to have the ability to work carefully and patiently amid the challenging underwater conditions, he said.
The program draws mainly from archaeologists who already have a deep love of water. Karsyn Johnson, a University of Haifa master’s student originally from Oklahoma, grew up scuba diving in deep lakes.
“I just always loved archaeology, but I’ve always been involved in water. I was a competitive swimmer for 11 years, and I’ve been a lifeguard for seven or eight years,” Johnson said.
After graduating from Oklahoma University in 2021, Johnson set her sights on coming to Israel. In 2022, she was working on a dig at Tel Hatzor in northern Israel when, on an off day, she was in Haifa and visited the Hecht Museum. She walked into the museum and saw the Maagan Michael ship, a 2,400-year-old trade boat discovered off the coast of the town of Maagan Michael.
“I was so star-struck by this ship,” she said. She met with the University of Haifa the same day about enrolling in the marine master’s program.
“This is like making a dream happen, to combine the two things, archaeology and water,” she said.
“Last week was my first time ever digging something out of the water. It was so cool,” said Johnson.
Marko Runjajić, a first-year PhD student in the maritime archaeology program, is overseeing the dive days and organizing the constant shift change of which students are in the water and which students are taking a break on land.
“After high school, I started engineering and failed, and I kind of stumbled into archaeology,” said Runjajić, who is from Croatia and grew up in Germany.
The marine excavation can be a little tedious, requiring hours of painstakingly sucking sand from small bits of wood or pottery, but Runjajić said the underwater digging is the most exciting part of the year.
“We only have limited time to do field work throughout the year — it’s related to the research, grants, and funding — so these are always special adventures,” Runjajić said. “It’s the best moment when you go into the water because you’ve been waiting for it, you’ve been planning it for a while, and then you pray to Poseidon that everything’s going to work out.”
Expert vacuum cleaners
Dor Beach looks like it has been ripped from the pages of a Caribbean resort rather than along Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Three small islands create a shallow lagoon, with bright blue water reflecting a cerulean sky. It’s a far cry from the murkier parts of Israel’s coast and the grimy Haifa port just 30 kilometers (18 miles) north. The calm, inviting waters make it easy to envision why ancient mariners would have chosen to use the site as a port thousands of years ago.
Starting in the 1980s, archaeologists have identified some 26 shipwrecks or remnants of cargo in the lagoon. Previously, it’s been difficult to excavate the lagoon because most of the archaeological remains are under around two meters of sand. In other areas along the Carmel coast, archaeological remains are found under just one meter of sand.
In order to remove two meters of sand while underwater, teams of around a dozen divers operate two sand dredgers, which act like massive vacuum cleaners by sucking up the sand from a certain area and spitting it out into a pile in another area. Because the movement of the water naturally tries to immediately fill any excavated area, the dredgers must be continuously at work. Archaeologists also use sandbags to shore up the sides of an excavated area, which needs to be at least 10 square meters (100 square feet) in order to keep enough sand out of the area being examined.
Overnight, the carefully excavated area is swallowed by the sand, and in the morning the archaeologists must begin the process all over again. Yasur-Landau said the sandy areas in Dor Beach do not have extensive marine life so there is little negative environmental impact from their digging.
During a three-week dig season in May, the team excavated two sites to explore cargo and remnants of Persian and Iron Age shipwrecks. It was the first time either site has been excavated since they were identified in the 1990s by divers from Israel and the United States.
The divers are also searching for evidence from before the Iron Age. Yasur-Landau said once they reach the sediment of the seabed, below the sand layer, they’ll be searching for any human activity from the Neolithic (9,5000 – 4,500 BCE) or even Paleolithic period (prior to 9,500 BCE).
Here, divers will need to use more traditional archaeological devices such as trowels to carefully dig in the clay sediment below the sand. Yasur-Landau is optimistic they will eventually find something from this period. He’s invited Neolithic experts from various institutions to snorkel above the excavated area and look for any patterns that they recognize as evidence of human activity.
Remains of coastal Neolithic villages were found at Atlit Yam, from around 8,000 BCE, when the water level was much lower than today, so the coastal village was closer to the water. Marine archaeology in Australia has revealed evidence of human settlements along the continent’s coast and underwater from some 60,000 years ago.
The last frontier is under the water
Marine archaeology is even more of a cooperative enterprise than land archaeology, because of the sheer number of people needed to operate the equipment – the boats, the dredgers, and ensure all the researchers safely exit the water. But archaeology in general is undergoing a seismic shift to become much more of a team sport, Yasur-Landau noted.
“The days of a single archaeologist in the field are over,” he said. “Everyone needs to work together… Archaeology is being done now by teams of different researchers, each one with their own discipline and labs.”
Earlier this year, the University of Haifa and the Technion launched a joint initiative to apply exact sciences and cutting-edge lab technology to archaeological digs, and cross-institutional cooperation is now the norm as microarchaeology has forced research to become highly specialized.
But for those still searching for the swashbuckling sense of adventure and discovery of uncovering ancient artifacts à la Indiana Jones, Yasur-Landau believes there’s no greater place to dig than underwater. There are hundreds of archaeologists in Israel, including more than 100 working at various academic institutions, and dozens working at the Israel Antiquities Authority. But only seven — five from universities and two at the IAA — are experts in underwater archaeology, he said. It’s one of the last unexplored frontiers in a country where archaeology regularly makes the news.
“In order to be our student, you don’t need to be the best scuba diver, but you need a certain level of curiosity, it’s like being a discoverer or explorer… You need to have a sense of adventure, to try to follow the great mysteries of the story of human resilience amid changing climate conditions,” Yasur-Landau said. “Even with all of the costs of marine archaeology, it provides an incredible scientific yield, because there’s so few people doing it.”
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