Diver spots 1,800-year-old cargo of marble capitals
About 700 feet off the Israeli coast sits the remains of a Roman shipwreck and 44 tons of buried treasure. Although not golden loot, the pristine marble columns and capitals, lost at sea 1,800 years ago, are certainly a prize find. Discovered by a swimmer and surveyed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the marble was likely destined for Ashkelon, Gaza, or even Alexandria in Egypt.
The hoard of marble, dated to the Roman period (c. 37–324 CE), includes Corinthian capitals decorated with vegetal motifs, partially carved capitals, and a 20-foot-long marble architrave. Discovered near Beit Yanai beach, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, the marble would have been intended for a magnificent public building such as a temple or theater. Originating from the Aegean or Black Sea region, the marble is far superior to the building materials typically found in archaeological contexts in Israel. Even in the important city of Caesarea Maritima or Herod’s palace at Herodium, architectural elements were commonly made of local stone covered with white plaster to give the effect of marble.
According to the IAA, the ship carrying the marble was likely wrecked following an encounter with a storm in the shallow waters along Israel’s coast. “Such storms often blow up suddenly,” said Koby Sharvit, Director of the Underwater Archaeology unit at the IAA. “Due to the ships’ limited maneuvering potential, they are often dragged into the shallow waters and shipwrecked. 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.” The IAA believes the finds were likely exposed during a recent storm. Over the years, many finds have been discovered off Israel’s coast, which has witnessed a long history of trade between the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Europe.
More than being an interesting new find, however, the Roman shipwreck also answers a long-standing question. “Land and Sea archaeologists have long argued whether the Roman period imported architectural elements were completely worked in their lands of origin, or whether they were transported in a partially carved form and were carved and fashioned at their site of destination,” said Sharvit. “The find of this cargo resolves the 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.”
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