Swimmer discovers precious marble cargo from 1,800-year-old Mediterranean shipwreck
Roman-era raw materials likely came from Turkey and were on their way to a southern Holy Land port; archaeologists hope to find wood remains of ship during excavations next week
Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.
Three weeks ago while swimming a mere 200 meters off the shore of the central beach town of Beit Yanai, recreational sea swimmer Gideon Harris took a dive of about four meters and stumbled upon a 1,800-year-old treasure trove of marble columns.
According to Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Kobi Sharvit, the columns are part of some 44 tons of marble blocks that appear to be from the wreck of a ship that was on its way to a Roman port — potentially Ashkelon or Gaza — to unload its precious cargo.
The IAA believes this sea-wrecked cargo — exposed during winter storms that brushed away centuries of sand — is the oldest of its kind known in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Preliminary underwater site explorations have found that the hold of the ship included decorated Corinthian capitals, other partially carved capitals, as well as a huge 6-meter marble architrave or door lintel.
“From the size of the architectural elements, we can calculate the dimensions of the ship; we are talking about a merchant ship that could bear a cargo of at least 200 tons,” said Sharvit.
Sharvit, director of the IAA’s underwater archaeology unit, confirmed that there are no visible remains from the ship on the sea bottom. He said the IAA will launch an undersea excavation next week alongside students from the University of Rhode Island in the hopes of discovering waterlogged wood from under the massive marble blocks, or a nearby underwater sand dune that may have buried and preserved parts of the ship.
The site formation gives clues to where the ship was heading, said Sharvit. The massive marble slabs are all placed in a specific way, mirroring how they would have been placed in the ship’s hold. Based on the spread of the slabs, he believes the ship had weighed anchor while it was taking on water, probably in a storm on the coast.
“Such storms often blow up suddenly along the country’s coast and due to the ships’ limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked,” said Sharvit.
From his experience, most wood from similar shipwrecks is washed ashore by waves and taken for reuse by locals. These planks, with metal nails and lead overlay, would have been a rare lucky find in antiquity.
“Everything was recycled in the ancient world,” he said.
Sharvit’s team has already sent marble specimens to be analyzed in a laboratory to confirm the luxurious building material’s origins, but he told The Times of Israel on Monday that it most likely came from Turkey or Greece.
The team has dated the find to the mid-2nd century CE based on architectural typography as well as historical Roman sources that cite the use of the precious marble as a building material. He hopes to discover coins in next week’s excavation.
The marble was earmarked for an elite building project, said Sharvit, because in this era, even the opulent Roman port city of Caesarea made do with local stone covered with plaster stucco that gave the appearance of marble. There are, however, examples of marble use in Ashkelon and Beit She’an.
The discovery of this cargo of mostly raw material helps researchers put to rest a historical question of whether marble was formed and finished prior to shipping or upon placement at a building site.
“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, similarly to specialist mosaic artists who traveled from site to site following commissioned projects,” said Sharvit.