Divers Discover Sunken Cargo at Herod’s Port City

Cargo comes to light at Caesarea Maritima in Caesarea National Park, Israel

This was not your average day of diving. Divers Ran Feinstein and Ofer Ra‘anan were checking out the underwater ruins of the ancient port city of Caesarea Maritima in Caesarea National Park, Israel, when they made a spectacular discovery: a 1,600-year-old trove of bronze statue fragments, coins and other finds that once comprised the cargo of a merchant ship.

Feinstein and Ra‘anan reported what they found to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which led to further investigation, including an underwater salvage survey, under the direction of the IAA. The Late Roman cargo recovered by the IAA archaeologists includes a bronze lamp depicting the sun god Sol, a figurine of the moon goddess Luna, remains of three life-size bronze statues, and thousands of coins that weighed in all 44 pounds.


Divers discovered in the waters of Caesarea National Park, Israel, bronze artifacts and other objects that once belonged to a Late Roman merchant ship. Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“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 harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks,” said Jacob Sharvit, Director of the IAA Marine Archaeology Unit, and Dror Planer, the unit’s Deputy Director, in an IAA press release.

“A marine assemblage such as this has not been found in Israel in the [last] 30 years,” continued Sharvit and Planer. “Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity. When we find bronze artifacts, it usually occurs at sea. Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process.”

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Caesarea Maritima was established by the king of Judea, Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.), and named in honor of Caesar Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. Herod outfitted the existing town with a grand palace complex, a temple dedicated to Roma and Augustus, a Roman-style theater, a circus for chariot-racing and a massive artificial harbor constructed with the latest advancements in Roman concrete technology.

In 6 C.E., the Romans made Caesarea Maritima the seat of the local Roman governor. According to the New Testament, Paul the Apostle was held in the Roman governor’s palace at Caesarea Maritima for two years while awaiting his trial in Rome (Acts 23:23–24; 24).

With its status and massive harbor—the largest built in the open sea at that time—Caesarea became a major port city and grew in importance and wealth, reaching its height in the Byzantine period (fifth–sixth centuries C.E.).


The coins that were part of the Late Roman cargo bear the bust of Roman emperor Constantine. Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The coins discovered recently by divers at Caesarea National Park, Israel, bear the bust of Roman Emperor Constantine. In 313 C.E., Constantine and co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which established religious tolerance in the Roman Empire toward all religions, including Christianity.

Learn more about Caesarea Maritima in the BAS Library:

Yosef Porath, Kenneth Holum, Avner Raban and Joseph Patrich, “Caesarea,” in Ephraim Stern, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 5 (Jerusalem and Washington, DC: Israel Exploration Society and the Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008).

“Strata: Museum Goes Under the Sea,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2007.

Kenneth G. Holum, “Caesarea: Herod and Beyond: Building Power,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2004.

Yosef Porath, “Caesarea: Herod and Beyond: Vegas on the Med,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2004.

Barbara Burrell, Kathryn Gleason and Ehud Netzer, “Uncovering Herod’s Seaside Palace,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1993.

Robert J. Bull, “Caesarea Maritima: The Search for Herod’s City,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1982.

Robert L. Hohlfelder, “Caesarea Beneath the Sea,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1982.

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