For over 200 years the most extensive political and social structure in Western civilisation, the Roman Empire, dominated the land and seas of the Western world. But like all great empires, it grew too vast. Over the many years of its decline, territory was stolen and land broken up like puzzle pieces, and its once great architecture, objects and emperors fell, even sank, to ruin – waiting to be discovered.
Ran Feinstein and Ofer Raanan had no idea that a routine dive would lead them to uncover the largest assemblage of Roman marine artefacts to be recovered in the past 30 years – marine cargo of an ancient merchant ship. They were diving in the ancient port of Caesarea, in Caesarea National Park, one of four past-Roman colonies in the Syria-Phoenicia region, located on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
Having dived here many times, Raanan and his buddy had never found anything like this before. During the dive the pair thought nothing more of the first sculpture they saw on the seabed when they found it, but then they came across a second. Realising it was something special, they brought it to the surface and contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) – a body of the Israeli government that regulates excavation and conservation.
Later, the IAA dived the site, recovering what was believed to be marine cargo of an ancient merchant ship that sank during the Late Roman period, around 1,600 years ago. An extensive portion of the seabed had been cleared of sand and the remains of the sunken ship could be seen peeping through. Iron anchors, remains of wooden anchors and items that were used in the construction and running of the sailing vessel, were recovered. An underwater salvage survey conducted earlier this month, using advanced equipment, discovered numerous items that would have been part of the Roman ship’s cargo.
“These are extremely exciting finds,” said Jacob Sharvit, Director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the IAA, “The location and distribution of the ancient finds on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated for recycling, which apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbour and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.”
Many of the artefacts discovered are still in great condition: 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. With life-size bronze cast statues, and objects fashioned in the shape of animals such as a whale, it’s a discovery that continues to drive the IAA’s exploration of the ancient Caesarea harbour. Only a year before, treasure of 2,000 gold Fatimid coins had been discovered by divers and the IAA.
“In recent years we have witnessed many random discoveries in the harbour at Caesarea. These finds are the result of two major factors: a lack of sand on the seabed causing the exposure of ancient artefacts, and an increase in the number of divers at the site.”
Built between 22 BC and 10 BC, Caesarea was to become a major port in the Mediterranean Sea, hosting the standard “recreational activities” that the Romans are famous for: Bathhouses, amphitheatres and glorious temples were all constructed for the residents to enjoy. Caesarea was a place that began to boom, and stood as the largest port on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
But in a seaside town that is delicately resting on the low-lying beaches of the Mediterranean, the risk of being washed away is always going to be a faint concern for those residing there. At some point in time the port was sunk, whether from seismic activity that tilted down the structures and caused them to settle into the seabed, or a tsunami flooded the shores, scientists cannot confirm.
This latest discovery is bound to ignite the imaginations of those underwater explorers keen to uncover further artefacts that may well be hidden away around the port, as well as give us a more informed view into the Roman history of the eastern Mediterranean. For recreational divers, it’s an exciting opportunity to add that special something to a dive – the chance to swim into ancient history.